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DEFENSE SECRETARY PRAISES RELIEF EFFORT

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Defense Secretary William Perry, returning from a fast-paced visit to three nations plagued by Africa's worst refugee crisis in decades, said Monday a massive international relief effort has "turned the corner" toward success.

With an open-ended U.S. commitment to provide humanitarian support and with 4,000 more peacekeeping troops from other countries expected within two weeks, Perry said it was "truly heartbreaking to see the human misery and deprivation" among the Rwandan refugees.But Perry told an airport tarmac news conference he was "proud to be the secretary of defense," because of the help 1,200 U.S. troops are giving in purifying water and ferrying in relief goods by air.

Perry said U.S. forces in the effort could grow to 3,000, a scaled-down estimate from his earlier prediction of 4,000. But he stressed once again that U.S. forces would not join the United Nations peacekeeping forces that are expected to swell to 5,000 within two weeks.

Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., who accompanied Perry, said he would meet with congressional leaders on Tuesday and urged approval of Clinton administration requests to increase aid for the Rwandan tragedy. Payne had been critical of administration inattention to Rwanda but said he fully supports the latest efforts.

During visits Sunday to Rwanda, Zaire and Uganda, Perry met with local government officials, United Nations and U.S. military officers and relief workers.

In the Rwandan capital of Kigali, the first U.S. troops on a new relief mission opened the city's airport for daily around-the-clock relief flights.

In Goma, where 1.2 million refugees battle disease and death, Perry visited a U.S. military water purification operation that has opened a flow of fresh water to the refugees.

Julia Taft, head of Interaction, which represents 158 private relief agencies worldwide, said conditions among the refugees still are serious.

"The real turning of the corner will be when they start going back to Rwanda," she said, noting that the country's new leaders assured Perry they are trying to make Rwanda safe for the return of people who have fled during months of violence between Hutus and Tutsis.

Perry, in a visit that dramatized growing U.S. involvement in the crisis, received assurances from Rwandan Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu that the government would not exact retribution or revenge for massacres and fighting that has killed up to 500,000 Rwandans since April.