The first wave of a U.S. military task force moved cautiously into central Africa on Sunday, preparing for a possible evacuation of Americans from Zaire.
At midday, a giant C-17 transport plane that flew through the night from Aviano, Italy, disgorged a contingent of Army soldiers, along with equipment, onto Brazzaville's tarmac.
Brazzaville is across the Zaire River from Kinshasa, the Zairian capital that some fear could erupt into violence as rebel troops advance through the country.
While the rebels are far from Kinshasa, many fear an outbreak of violence by Zaire's poorly paid soldiers if President Mobutu Sese Seko dies or the rebels continue their advance. A coup is another possibility.
Mobutu has refused rebel leader Laurent Kabila's demand for talks.
About 500 American civilians are in Zaire, including about 320 in Kinshasa. There are also an estimated 7,000 Europeans in Kinshasa, including 3,000 Belgians and 1,000 French nationals.
The French have had a task force in Brazzaville for several weeks and a small advance team from Britain was also in place. A Belgian force was expected today.
U.S. military planners want to dispel any notion that the force will become embroiled in Zaire's five-month civil war.
The size of the advance party was cut to lower its profile. The first contingent consisted of 28 people. They joined an advance team of 20 to 30 that arrived last week. The force could eventually number several hundred.
"We're trying to keep our "footprint' small so the deployment will be viewed as what it is: preparatory and not provocative," the commander of the task force, Maj. Gen. EdwinSmith, said en route to Brazzaville.
Smith said he expected to have about 200 U.S. soldiers in Brazzaville within the next 48 hours and another 100 or so in Libreville, the capital of neighboring Gabon. Additional U.S. cargo planes were expected late Sunday.
Congo officials have not objected to the presence of U.S. troops, welcoming anything that might discourage a spillover of Zairian refugees and soldiers.
Zaire has been ruled for 31 years by Mobutu, who is 66 and stricken with prostate cancer. Widely seen as a dictator, he returned home Friday after a lengthy stay in Europe.