15-mile river of refugees flees Zaire fighting

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Half a million panic-stricken people are now on the move in eastern Zaire, the biggest movement of humanity since the Rwandan civil war two years ago.

Most of the new refugees are the old ones: the Hutus who fled into Zaire in fear of reprisals for the genocide which killed half a million Tutsis in 1994.

With a savage and complex new conflict in the Great Lakes region menacing their camps, the Hutus are fleeing again, some back into Rwanda, some deeper into Zaire. A stream of 200,000 Rwandan refugees took to the roads yesterday, adding to the 300,000 refugees, Rwandans and Burundian Hutus, who fled their camps last week.

Panos Moumtzis, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Goma said: "There is a stream of people about 25km [15 miles] long. I saw pregnant women, handicapped people, little children."

More than a 100 foreigners, most of them United Nations officials and aid workers, were also evacuated from the region at the weekend.

The initial exodus was an attempt to escape the escalating war between the Zairean army and rebels from an ethnic Tutsi group known as the Banyamulenge, which Zaire wants to expel. But, according to observers in the region, the latest flight of Rwandan Hutus has been prompted by an attack from inside Rwanda. Such a development, if confirmed, represents a dramatic and frightening escalation of a conflict which threatens to engulf the whole of central Africa in a brutal war.

Zaire has accused Rwanda's Tutsi-dominated regime, victors in the 1994 civil war, of backing the rebels who have all but routed the Zairean forces in the east. The latest reports make Rwanda's denials difficult, if not impossible, to sustain.

Burundi, another neighbour controlled by a Tutsi minority, also stands accused by Zaire of launching raids into its territory. Like Rwanda, Burundi is confronted by a forceful Hutu insurgency issuing from within the refugee camps of eastern Zaire. A major objective for both Rwanda and Burundi is the closure of the camps which are being used as bases by exiled Hutu extremists committed to returning to their homelands by force.

The tiny Tutsi-dominated nations know they can never have peace for as long as Hutu insurgents enjoy the protection, and probably the support, of their huge, anarchic neighbour to the west.

The UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has called for an emergency mission to go to Zaire, followed by an international conference to prevent the violence spreading.

Aid workers say that several refugees were killed and dozens wounded when Kibumba, one of the biggest camps in north Kivu province, was shelled at the weekend. The sustained mortar attack is said to have come from Rwanda.

According to one source, hundreds of Rwandan troops took part in the operation though this report remains unconfirmed.

"We saw four bodies in Kibumba but refugees told us there were a lot more dead," said Mr Moumtzis. "We were told there were at least 100 wounded. One of the mortars hit Kibumba hospital." Kibumba is now deserted, with most of its former residents heading for a neighbouring camp, Mugunga. Kitale, another camp in the north Kivu region of eastern Zaire, is also reported to have come under attack. An aid official told The Independent it had been hit by insurgents from Rwanda.

None of the Rwandan refugees could leave, said the official, as the camp had been surrounded by fighters.

With the Zairean forces on the run from the Tutsi Banyamulenge rebels in South Kivu province, this might appear to Rwanda as the perfect time to provoke havoc in the camps. Its territory is being infiltrated with increasing audacity by Hutu guerrillas, who two years ago participated in the genocide. The Rwandan government, formed by the Tutsi rebels who put an end to the genocide and routed its perpetrators, is outraged that the international community is spending $1m a day supporting the refugees, many of whom are mass murderers.

According to the UNHCR, up to 10,000 refugees had by yesterday crossed back into Rwanda despite their fear of revenge attacks by survivors of the genocide.

The Rwandan government has long paid lip service to the idea of the refugees returning home but many analysts believe it has neither the capacity nor the will to welcome a huge influx of Hutu opponents. Many of the refugees fleeing this weekend's attacks are believed to have headed westwards, deeper into Zaire.

Most of the border region appears to be controlled by the Banyamulenge whose Rwandan ancestors moved to Kivu nearly 200 years ago. Their well- armed guerrillas are fighting for Zairean citizenship. With the town of Uvira in their hands and the South Kivu provincial capital of Bukavu under siege, the rebels are in a strong position to bargain with the unstable Zairean government.

Thousands of troop reinforcements have been sent to the remote east from the capital, Kinshasa. The fighting may be only beginning.