Tutsi rebels take Zaire closer to war

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The United Nations evacuated 128 aid workers and other foreign nationals from Bukavu, eastern Zaire, yesterday and scrapped plans for an emergency food airlift as the region descended closer to war.

Ethnic Tutsi rebels, known as Banyamulenge, were reported to have captured two towns from government forces - Uvira, at the northern end of Lake Tanganyika, and Rutshuru, 30 miles from Goma and only six miles from sprawling refugee camps housing 700,000 Rwandan Hutus, traditional adversaries of the Tutsis. The complex, multi-sided conflict in eastern Zaire has already displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees, and aid workers said another 200,000 were on the move, bringing the total to nearly half a million.

Zairean troops have been falling back towards Bukavu, capital of South Kivu province, in recent days as the rebels advance from the south. Four mortar blasts were heard in Bukavu early yesterday, prompting the UN to order the evacuation because of worsening security. The shells appeared to explode in or near the Panzi refugee camp, which houses some 7,200 Hutu refugees. Scenes of chaos and panic in Panzi could be seen from across the Ruzizi River in Rwanda as refugees scrambled to escape machine-gun fire rattling the air.

Many of the Hutus in Zaire were involved in the 1994 genocide and civil war in Rwanda, when about a million Tutsis and Hutus were massacred. They fled the country to avoid retribution after Tutsi exiles returned to Rwanda and took power in the capital, Kigali. Since then ethnic tensions have been acute throughout the region, causing chronic instability in Burundi as well as eastern Zaire.

The Hutu refugees have resisted calls from the Rwandan government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to return, saying they fear persecution by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan army. A Rwandan Hutu lobby group, the Rally for the Return of Refugees and Democracy in Rwanda, said the refugees were fleeing Tutsi rebels and Rwandan government troops in eastern Zaire. "[They] are likely to die a slow but sure death," said a spokesman.

The Banyamulenge rebels, descendants of Tutsis who settled in eastern Zaire up to 200 years ago, say they took up arms against the Kinshasa government after it issued an order to expel them from the country.