300,000 march south in the latest Rwandan exodus

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The Independent Online
AT LEAST 300,000 people were fleeing south from the Rwandan capital of Kigali yesterday in an attempt to escape fighting between government troops and rebels.

The latest exodus, involving even more people than fled into neighbouring Tanzania last month to escape inter-tribal massacres, has been labelled a humanitarian catastrophe of unimaginable proportions by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

There is no sign of an end to the catastrophes - massacres, flight and disease - which have broken over this small country in the past few weeks.

'There is complete confusion here,' said an ICRC delegate, Nina Windquist, speaking by satellite from the organisation's base in Gitarama. 'The road is completely clogged with panic-stricken people who don't know where to go or what to do. Most of them have now passed Gitarama and are continuing southwards towards the Burundi border.'

Aid agency Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) says it expects thousands of people to cross into Burundi in the next few days. In one Burundian province, Kirundo, 6,000 civilians are said to be arriving every day. The Rwandan capital is reported to be virtually empty - although an unknown number may still be hiding there. Meanwhile, in a rare success for the United Nations peace-keeping forces, UN convoys evacuated nearly 700 trapped refugees yesterday from Kigali. Despite rebel intimidation, the convoys collected 402 members of the majority Hutu tribe from a stadium in the rebel-held east of the city in two trips and ferried them to government-controlled territory. Simultaneously, convoys took 290 people, mostly members of Rwanda's Tutsi minority, from the Hotel des Mille Collines in the government-held city centre to the rebel- controlled north.

Fighting between rebel and government forces is continuing around the disputed stretch of road between the capital and Gitarama, where the rump government is currently in hiding. No ICRC relief convoys have been able to reach the besieged capital for the past 10 days. Every two or three miles there are roadblocks manned by Hutu militias, which have killed hundreds of thousands of Rwandans since the beginning of last month. Neither the government nor the military has control over these marauding gangs, who are armed with machetes, clubs and grenades.

More than 1,000 terrified Tutsis remain imprisoned in a concentration camp on the outskirts of Gitarama. Daily executions of the camp's inmates continue within yards of the ICRC compound. The organisation's delegates are powerless to intervene as the camp is under the control of the military. The killings are being carried out by soldiers and members of the Hutu militias.

The ICRC and the United Nations World Food Programme are feeding tens of thousands of displaced people. In one site, Kamonyi, which is situated between Kigali and Gitarama, there are said to be some 80,000 people.

'Our great fear is that the rebels will cut off the road between Gitarama and Butare to the south, making it impossible for our convoys to get through,' Ms Windquist said. 'The situation is extremely uncertain and getting worse by the hour. We only have enough food for a few more distributions.'

ICRC delegates working in the capital and in Gitarama are said to be stretched to breaking point. ICRC and MSF doctors, struggling to save the lives of hundreds of wounded civilians, are working 15-hour days. The organisations have issued an urgent appeal to international aid agencies for assistance.

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