In Zaire, refugees flee rumored impending attack

KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) — An exodus of 300,000 Hutu refugees from camps in eastern Zaire grew more chaotic Thursday as rumors spread that Tutsi rebels were planning to attack the provincial capital.
U.N. aid workers in that city, Bukavu, where 80,000 of the refugees were reported to have arrived Thursday, said Zairian troops were setting up roadblocks and warning people of an impending assault.
Though reports of fighting last week between Zairian troops and Tutsis have not been confirmed, the mere fear that fighting had broken out prompted Hutu refugees to flee 12 camps near Uvira, 60 miles south of Bukavu.
As those refugees were streaming northward toward Bukavu, others were fleeing westward from camps in Bukavu, away from the border with Rwanda, from which they fear an attack will be launched. In all, there are about 40 refugee camps in eastern Zaire.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees warned Thursday that the situation could deteriorate rapidly as food supplies are exhausted and refugees are forced to drink polluted water.
Zairian Prime Minister Kengo Wa Dondo on Thursday asked Belgium, Zaire’s former colonial ruler, to organize mediation by the European Union to resolve the conflict between his country and Rwanda.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the United States calls on “all parties to cease the violence and to defuse the situation.”
Authorities in Bukavu have imposed an 8 p.m.-to-8 a.m. curfew after the Tutsi fighters, known as Banyamulenge, were reported to have advanced to within 10 miles of the city.
About 30 foreign aid workers were evacuated by air from Bukavu on Thursday, U.N. World Food Program spokeswoman Michele Quintaglia said by telephone from there. About 70 foreign aid workers remained.
“Bukavu is fairly tense,” she said. “There are roadblocks, army reinforcements in the town.”
She said a WFP aid worker was beaten Thursday by four Zairian soldiers who stole his car, radio and passport.
U.N. security sources said the Tutsi rebels apparently had taken control of the Zairian border post at Kamanyola near the confluence of the borders of Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi.
In Kigali, the Rwandan capital, Banyamulenge spokesman Mulle Ruhimbika said the Tutsis were engaged in intense battles with Zairian troops. About 1,000 Banyamulenge civilians have been killed by Zairian troops since September, he said. There was no independent confirmation of the claim.
WFP officials said there was only few days’ worth of food in their warehouses in Bukavu.
“Right now, (the refugees) are in good shape, but that could change dramatically,” said UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler. “This crisis has all ingredients for a humanitarian emergency.”
Some 2,400 tons of food supplies were held up on the Ugandan side of the border when the Zairians closed it down Tuesday. The WFP was seeking clearance for the operation from Zaire and neighboring countries.
The Zairian government has tried to revoke the citizenship of the Banyamulenge, who have lived in what is now eastern Zaire for about 200 years after moving west from present-day Rwanda. They speak a language similar to that spoken by people in Rwanda and Burundi.
A local official in Bukavu recently ordered 250,000 of the Tutsis to leave, prompting some to take up arms.
Zairian officials blame Rwanda and Burundi for arming and abetting the Banyamulenge. Both Rwanda and Burundi reject the claims.