The United States expanded its role in supporting the defense of Zaire yesterday by sending Air Force transport planes and ground support units to Senegal Gabon to help ferry African troops into Zaire's Shaba Province.
"This is not a major expansion" of American military support operations in Africa said State Department spokesman Hodding Carter. He said he is unware of any "significant congressional opposition to . . . this limited, if somewhat expanded, role of ferrying troops into and out of Zaire."
Despite that disclaimer, the 16-member Black Caucus, composed of members of the House of Representatives, yesterday charged the Carter administrtion with attempting "to reintroduce an East-West confrontation over the invasion of the Shaba Province of Zaire . . ."
Reminding President Carter of his "initial commitment . . . to end a Cold War-oriented policy on the African continent," the Black Caucus said: "We hope that the administration will not overreact, in this particular instance."
The group called on the administration to move toward recognition of Angola. Carter, however, has said Angola "must bear a heavy responsibility for the deadly attack" on the copper-mining center of Shaba Province. The president said that Cuba, which has 20,000 troops in Angola by American estimates, and the Soviet Union, which arms them, are also culpable.
Carter today will deliver a major address bearing on current U.S. Soviet tension and American policy in Africa to the graduating class of the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
The State Deparment's spokesman said, "We have consulted . . . with congressional leaders on this whole question" of current U.S. military support operations in U.S. military support operations in Africa. He added, "We are not going to do anything for which we don't have statutory authority," or without seeking new authority if that is required.
Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.), chairman of the Black Caucus, however, said he opposes even the present U.S. airlift of African troops, because it "suggests very strongly . . . further steps to present us with a situation comparable to Vietnam." The caucus statement itself did not address the airlift issue.
In Paris, a senior U.S. official first disclosed that U.S. Air Force planes landed in Senegal and Gabon, on Africa's west coast, to help transport a total of 300 to 400 troops to Zaire.
The Senegalese and Gabonese troops will join 1,500 Moroccan troops - also airlifted by American aircraft - in Shaba Province. They will replace most of the French and Belgian paratroops rushed to Shaba to rescue European technicians and dependents caught in the cross-border attack launched from Angola.
A global propaganda battle is now developing over the Western-supported military reinforcements for Zaire and the proposed larger, permanent inter-African defense force that may follow it to checkmate Soviet-Cuban operations in Africa.
Soviet news organs, including Tass news agency and others, are charging that "NATO members, who unleshed an armed intervention in Zaire, intend to expand it considerably, to . . . seize upon the events in Shaba Province for openly interfering in the internal affairs of other African states and undermining the national liberation movement of the peoples of the continent."
The Soviet Union and its allies are portraying the United States and China as joint plotters in Africa. They charge that the alleged plot was hatched during presidential national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski's recent trip to peking, and is being pursued in Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua's current visit to Zaire.
"The Peking leaders are playing the role of NATO stooges in the bloc's aggressive plans against free Africa," Tass charged.
State Department spokesman Carter said that in Monday's meeting in Paris of senior diplomats from the United States, France, Belgium, Great Britain and West Germany, the United States "made no commitments in regard to a broader African security force."
Instructions to the U.S. delegation, headed by Undersecretary of State David Newsom, he said, "dealt only with immediate problems of Zaire," but there was "a useful exchange of views" about "an inter-African defense force."
The Defense Department said yesterday that the United States currently has "authorized airlift support of up to 30 missions to move multinational forces and equipment to Zaire and to withdraw elements of the French forces that have been operating there.
"In addition," the Pentagon said, "the U.S. is flying approximately 20 support missions positioning American ground support and communications personnel."
U.S. military ground support personnel are now listed at Dakar, Senegal; Agadir, Morocco; Solenzara, Corsica; Libreville, Gabon, Avord, France, and Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, Zaire. The Pentagon said there will be 72 U.S. personnel on the ground in Zaire, and "approximately 253" at other locations listed.
The State Department said these personnel are unarmed and will "help in the logistics . . . in loading and unloading . . ."
Some of the Moroccan troops sent to Zaire reportedly will reinforce President Mobutu's personal guard. In Zaire, the State Department spokesman said yesterday, "substantial reform must take place if additional assistance is to be effective."
Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda yesterday met with Mobutu in Zaire, reportedly to help patch up their dispute over the fact that the troops which invaded Shaba Province crossed from Angola through a corner of Zambia. Kaunda, who strongly disagrees with American and other Western stress on the Soviet-Cuban challenge in Africa, visited Angola's capital of Luanda is weekend for talks with president Agostinho Neto.
News agencies reported the following other developments:
An exile group in Brussels claimed that Nguza Karl i Bond, a former foreign minister of Zaire who was sentenced to death for his alleged backing of the 1977 Shaba invasion, has died in a Zairian jail from lack of medical treatment. Zaire's ambassador to Belgium denied the report, however.
The former minister, who belongs to the Lunda tribe, suffers from diabetes. His sentence was imposed last September after he was found guilty of high treason, but Mobutu has commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment.
Zaire's former ambassador to Iran Moeka Makosso, who now leads an exile group opposed to the Mobutu government, was detained by belgian police outside Brussel's International Press Center. Belgian authorities had no immediate comment on reasons for his arrest.