'They'll all be dead by the time the UN decides'

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In the camps from which they fled, there is only wreckage, a scattering of belongings, bodies. The Hutu refugees who sheltered there are up in the hills, dying of disease, thirst and starvation, while the United Nations is apparently still not ready to act after a weekend of futile discussion.

The sequence of events seems dismally familiar - from Somalia, Rwanda, and now Zaire. Ethnic and economic tensions spark a war, which becomes a refugee crisis, which becomes a humanitarian tragedy - and all the while the "international community" discusses exit strategies and force levels. And nothing happens.

Aid workers pulled out of eastern Zaire over a week ago, after an uprising by anti-government Zairean Tutsis sparked conflict with government troops. The Hutu refugees, who had fled from Rwanda and Burundi, were forced to flee again.

More than a million scrambled from the camps in eastern Zaire into the hills, along with several hundred thousand frightened Zaireans. Their location, not to say their condition, remains a mystery, but first reports from the survivors trickling out of the bush are of starvation, disease and death. Aid officials estimate several hundred refugees a day are dying, and that 80,000 children will die this month without help. "They will all be dead by the time the UN makes up its mind what to do," said a senior UN official in Burundi.

Late on Friday night, the United Nations Security Council tried to agree a resolution establishing an intervention force, but it came to nothing. The resolution simply called for interested countries to make plans to intervene. The US, in particular, said it needed "more time" to consider the crisis, and a decision has been postponed until 20 November.

France, which has taken the lead in pressing for a troop deployment, advocated a greater sense of urgency, and said the US should contribute. "The participation of an American contingent alongside Europeans and Africans would bear witness to the importance the international community attaches to resolving this human tragedy together," it said

But the US - with Somalia still fresh in the minds of policy planners in Washington - is reluctant and Britain, too, is less than keen to get involved. "I think it's certainly possible that there will be an international force that will have been authorised," said Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday. But he added: "Even when you take the decision, it takes a little while . . . the pure logistics of getting people to the heart of Africa takes time."

Diplomatic efforts continued over the weekend to bring relief, but with little result. The UN envoy Raymond Chretien tried but apparently failed to persuade Zairean authorities to agree to safe havens inside Zaire.

Zaire - which has long demanded that the refugees go back to Rwanda and Burundi - says any relief operation for the refugees must be in their own countries. "It is extremely frustrating for me to see more obstacles presenting themselves than possible solutions." Mr Chretien said.

Rwanda has at last given permission for assistance to be delivered to the refugees from its side of the border, having previously insisted that aid should only be distributed inside Rwanda itself. But talks with the rebels inside Zaire, who control most of the border area, were inconclusive.

Emma Bonino, the EU's outspoken commissioner for aid, spoke for many involved in the crisis. "How can I tell them the Security Council doesn't see ... doesn't listen ... doesn't care," she said. "The states who prevented a force being deployed are an international scandal ... an international disgrace.

"I really wonder how they can sleep at night. How do they explain their actions to their wives, to their children?"