The group of around 300 armed Hutus stormed a makeshift jail in central Rwanda on Wednesday in what appears to have been a well-planned attack.
At least 500 prisoners were freed and all of them escaped, along with the militiamen. The army said six civilians were also killed when militiamen attacked their homes in the same settlement; some of them had been macheted to death.
The prisoners who got away were - like the militiamen - all Hutus.
The dead are all believed to have been Tutsis. They were the survivors of the Hutu-inspired genocide that decimated the country's Tutsi minority in 1994.
Now it appears that the same men who killed up to a million Tutsis before their regime was overthrown three years ago are returning from the forests where they have been hiding to take revenge on the few who survived.
Since the return late last year of almost 2 million Hutu refugees from exile in surrounding countries, this tiny central African country has become a battlefield in an undeclared war between the Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-led government.
The jailbreak in Bulinga, in central Rwanda was the second of its kind in two days. According to the country's military, more than a hundred prisoners were sprung from a jail at Rwerere, in the north-west, almost exactly 24 hours earlier.
Since April this year, Hutu militiamen have stepped up their campaign of violence in the north-west, staging ambushes and attacking military targets, local officials, prisons and settlements which are home to those Tutsis who survived the genocide. The Rwandan government says it is no coincidence that the violence has increased simultaneously with the most recent mass repatriation of Hutu refugees from eastern Zaire.
They say many of the returnees are members of the former army or their militia allies, the so-called interhamwe, who led the 1994 killings. "Those in the jail have the same ideology as the militiamen," Richard Sezibera, a military spokesman, said yesterday.
The prisons are an easy target. With an estimated 120,000 Hutus awaiting trial for the carnage of 1994, virtually every district has had to hurriedly transform unused buildings into makeshift jails. Some have standing room only. Hygiene and sanitation are pitifully bad and disease is rife.
But, many detainees seem to feel safer in than out. Many fear retribution from Tutsis in their home districts. There have even been reports of returnees asking to be let into the jails. Some are so ramshackle that anyone wanting to escape could do so easily, though they would risk being shot.
The lack of will to escape means that security has not been a serious problem. In addition, the number of jails and the conflict in the north- west means few soldiers can be spared to guard each one. So, when hundreds of armed men attack a prison, they meet little resistance. Those inside seize the opportunity to escape prison and justice. Once outside, they have little choice but to stick with the militiamen.
The spate of jailbreaks is bad news for Rwanda's army, which says it is already fighting an estimated 15,000 militiamen in the north-west. Although the army insists the militiamen are poorly armed, the soldiers appear to be flat out trying to deal with them. The prospect of ever increasing numbers of genocide suspects being released is an alarming one.
The attack in Bulinga, which was well south of the rebels' normal field of activity, is also a sign that the insurgency is spreading throughout the country.Reuse content