France urges EU to intervene in Zaire

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A day after the Zairean town of Goma apparently fell to Tutsi rebels, creating yet another wave of refugees in the crisis engulfing central Africa, sporadic gunfire could still be heard in Gisenyi, just over the Rwandan border.

As the thousands who fled Goma at the weekend spent their first day in refugee camps in Rwanda, it seems that, despite overwhelming Zairean troops, skirmishes between the rebels and opposing forces continue. Fifteen heavy explosions were also heard in Bukavu, south of Goma, which fell to the Zairean Banyamulenge Tutsis last week. Caught up in the fighting are more than 1 million Rwandan Hutu refugees who fled to Zaire two years ago after the Hutu genocide of 800,000 Tutsi citizens.

Yesterday France, criticised for its diplomatic stance on the 1994 genocide, called on the European Union to prepare to intervene to head off a disaster in the region.

Many aid workers and political analysts believe the only solution to the crisis is the return of the Hutu refugees to Rwanda but while Zaireans have poured over the border to escape the fighting, Hutus were still showing no signs of returning home. Their presence in eastern Zaire and the influence of the Hutu extremists who lead them has proved a destabilising force in the region.

More than 700,000 Hutu refugees are huddled together in camps around Goma. Fear and panic have created the largest refugee camp in the world at Muganga, where 400,000 are packed in.

"The camps are completely overcrowded," said one aid- programme director yesterday. "Disease will soon set in. Forty thousand Hutu refugees died in 1994 when a cholera epidemic hit the camp."

The aid workers said it was cynical to say so, but the absence of television cameras in the cut-off camps might this time ensure that short-term decisions about the crisis will be avoided and a more lasting solution found. "People will undoubtedly die," he said. "But perhaps this time we will get a proper solution. Hard decisions must be taken."

He admitted the camps, sustained by international donors at a cost of $2.8m (pounds 1.8m) a day, had become a base from which Hutu extremists could hit back across the border at the new Tutsi-led Rwandan government. He said many people criticised the aid workers for failing to rid the camps of the hardliners.

"But it is not easy to remove the leadership," he said. "And while it is easy to recognise what has gone wrong, it is far harder to put it right."

The eleventh-hour evacuation of more than 100 aid workers from Goma on Saturday has left the refugees to fend for themselves, with just two weeks' supply of food left. Aid organisations say fear of returning home and intimidation has trapped them in the camps.

Yesterday Rwanda, which has everything to gain from the break-up of the camps, insisted again that it had no intention of launching military operations against Zaire. But witnesses report that Rwandan troops did indeed take part in Tutsi rebel action against Zairean forces at the weekend.

One refugee said yesterday that anti-Zairean fighters had carried large guns and were well-equipped when they entered Goma.