The landing of French and Belgian paratroopers in Zaire's troubled Shaba Province yesterday has brought the Belgian government to the brink of a serious political and diplomatic dilemma.
The situation is riddled with danger for the 2,500 European civilians - mostly Belgians - caught in the battle between the Zaire government and rebel forces and with frustration for the Belgian people and government, who once again face a recurring nightmare from their colonial past.
Widespread support is apparent for what the Belgian government stresses is a purely humanitarian effort to rescue the trapped Europeans. If the operation goes badly however, it could cause far-reaching political problems here, and military and international repercussions in Africa.
For the Belgians, the frustrations are all too clear.
On the one hand, there are still about 30,000 Belgian citizens living throughout Zaire, which was the Belgian Congo before it became independent in 1960.
The family and business links are still substantial, as is Belgian interest in the copper and cobalt mining industries.
On the other hand, there is widespread distrust and dislike here of Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko and even less sympathy for the Congolese National Liberation Front fighting Mobutu's forces in Shaba Province. The rebels are widely suspected of having been trained by Cubans in neighboring Angola.
"Most people would simply like the Zaire problem to go away. People only care about saving the Belgians, not about Mobutu, the Front or anything else" Belgian official said.
It was just a year ago that France, at Mobutu's request, provided logistical support for Moroccan troops who were called in to repel a rebel invasion in Shaba.
But what really haunts the Belgians is their 1964 intervention at Stanely-ville (now called Kisangani) in Zaire. That took the lives of 20 people, wounded hundreds more and brought considerable criticism of Belgium at the United Nations.
This time, the action to save the civilians has been set up as an international effort developed in discussions with the French, British and Americans.
It is the French connection that is potentially troublesome. France, to an increasing degree these days is supporting military operations in other areas of Africa where, the French say, they are helping governments maintain their independence.
Thus, Foreign Ministry officials here privately express concern that while they had to take the risk of operating with the French, they may be lumped with a country that has different aims in Africa that Belgium.
At a press conference here yesterday, a member of the Congolese National Liberation Front went out of his way to castigate and ridicule French military intentions in Zaire, while commenting more cautiously on the "responsible" action of the Belgian, British and U.S. governments.
The spokesman, Jean-Baptiste Mpondo, said the rebels have never opposed evacuation of the foreign nationals. He said ground and air attacks by Mobutu's forces were meant to keep the Europeans there as essential hostages in what he termed Mobutu's efforts to attract international military aid.
Virtually all major Belgian newspapers have supported sending paratroopers for the humanitarian role of providing safe passage for the civilians. And all have warned that it must not be allowed to become a military intervention that could be seen as propping up Mobutu's government.
As the respected newspaper De Standard said, this could internationalize the conflict in a dangerous way and provide a pretext for the rebels to call for Cuban and Soviet help. Thus far, Western officials say there is no evidence of Cuban involvement inside Zaire.
The immediate problem, and irony, for Brussels stems from what may be a difference of opinion over tactics with the French at a crucial moment.
The 600 French paratroopers - whose number was estimated at 600 - yesterday were the first to land early yesterday. They were dropped near the mining center of Kolwezi where the Europeans are trapped. About 400 of those trapped are French.
The Belgian paratroopers, believed to number about a thousand, landed later at Kamina, about 120 miles to the north. Thus it is the French who are the closest to a battle if it develops, and conceivably could touch one off.
The Belgian prime Minister Leo Tindemans, said yesterday that he had been in contact twice in recent days with French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and that he was told in advance of the French Plan. Foreign Ministry sources here say privately that the Belgians, who have been trying to set up contacts for evacuation through the Red Cross, tried to discourage the French move and privately disapproved of it.
If the French act alone and are successful in helping evacuate the civilians without incident, they will have saved the Belgians from a potentially embarrassing and dangerous undertaking. If things go badly, then the worst fears of a wider conflict in the region and still more instability in Africa could come true.
Although Tindemans has widespread political backing for the Belgians tactics so far, he is faced with serious differences in his ruling coalition government over abortion and a huge budget deficit. The prime minister already indicated before the Zaire crisis that he would resign at the end of this month if his economic crisis plan was not accepted, and a bad outcome in Shaba Province could make that more likely, observers here feel.