Rwanda's Crisis: Militias raid camps as new offensive starts in the killing fields

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The latest massacre in Rwanda has further dashed hopes for peace after the 1994 genocide. Amelia French in Kigali reports on how remnants of the militias which carried out the genocide are stepping up their campaign of violence.

Everyone thought is was likely to happen again and it did. Last week, suspected Rwandan Hutu militiamen attacked a UN camp for Tutsi refugees from Congo-Zaire and massacred many of the inhabitants.

It was the second attack in only four months on the camp at Mudende, situated in one of the most violent areas of north-western Rwanda. In August, more than 130 refugees were killed.

This time, the official death- toll was about 270, though survivors say the true figure was much higher.

The Rwandan army, which counted the bodies along with UN officials, denies this. But the hideous results were there for all to see; charred bodies, babies hacked to death, blood-soaked clothes strewn around, and burnt- out tents.

The regional military chief, Col Kayumba Nyamwasa, said he had suspended the army commander guarding the camp for failing to respond when attackers set about the camp with guns, grenades and machetes at around midnight.

Up to 200 tents were burned. "I looked out of my window and saw flames going right up into the sky," one resident said.

Rwandan officials and the UN are trying to work out what is to be done with more than 16,000 survivors of the carnage, most of whom have fled to a nearby temporary camp.

This was the latest attack in an escalating campaign of violence in north- west Rwanda by Hutu militiamen, apparently still committed to the agenda of Tutsi extermination that the world witnessed three years ago.

The Rwandan authorities say the militiamen are the remnants of the former government army and their militia allies who carried out the genocide of 1994, in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu opponents of the regime were killed.

They say most of the militiamen returned to Rwanda during the final repatriation of refugees who fled to Zaire and elsewhere in 1994, when the Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front took power. Certainly, the violence has increased dramatically following the last mass repatriation of Hutu refugees over the past year.

"We are not fighting a war, we are fighting genocide," Col Kayumba said the day after the attack, as he stood beside the bodies of women and children laid out for burial at the camp at Mudende.

The Rwandan government has been accused of dragging its feet over the repatriation of Tutsi refugees to Congo-Zaire. It has been suggested that if they were sent back over the border, the Tutsi minority in the north- west of Rwanda would feel even more vulnerable.

The ethnic divide in the north-west between the Hutus and Tutsis is becoming increasingly bitter. The methods which are used by the militiamen include attacking and killing Tutsi civilians, storming jails to release genocide suspects, killing officials, both Tutsi and Hutus believed to be co-operating with the army, burning local administration buildings and ambushing passenger and military vehicles.

The army says that after each attack, the militiamen melt back into the local population, which clearly supports them. Often, the local Hutu population flees immediately after an attack, fearing retribution at the hands of the army. Reports from the north-west speak of large numbers of Hutu civilians being killed in the army's counter-insurgency operations. Tutsi civilians are also reported to be carrying out reprisal killings of Hutus from time to time.

The army mostly denies all this and says such reports are put out by supporters of the militiamen. Given the security situation in the region, diplomats, human-rights monitors, members of international organisations and journalists have been advised to travel only with military escorts. This makes independent information hard to come by.

The Rwandan authorities are increasingly maintaining that there is no such thing as innocent bystanders amongst the Hutus of the north-west, which is traditionally the heartland of Hutu extremism. Undoubtedly, the assumption of guilt and the fear of being killed during military operations is pushing an increasing number of young men into the bush.

Recently, local people have begun crossing the border into neighbouring Congo-Zaire in flight from the fighting. But they are usually rounded up and pushed back into Rwanda by the Congolese authorities.

Col Kayumba believes that his forces are fighting an estimated 15,000 militiamen in the north-west. He says the rebels have no political or economic agenda and are intent only on killing the Tutsis or chasing them out of the country. "Tutsis, go back to your place of origin or accept to die," read a message scrawled in blue chalk on a well close to Mudende camp.

The Rwandan government yesterday issued a statement describing the activities of the Hutu militiamen as genocide and said this was the direct responsibility of the international community, which should deal with the situation in that context, although the government made clear it could deal with the military situation itself.

Mary Robinson, the former Irish president and now UN Commissioner for Human Rights, and Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State have both visited Rwanda in the past 10 days, and voiced their fears about the worsening situation in the north-west.