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Aid effort overwhelmed by Rwanda's dying

GOMA - Rwandan refugees stricken by cholera and exhaustion were dying by the thousands yesterday as aid workers sought desperately to stem the epidemic in filthy, overcrowded camps littered with corpses.

The chaos is such that no official figures are available, but Jenneke Kruyt, a Dutch nurse at Munigi camp, said: 'On the way here this morning we counted the dead on the road and there were 800.' Refugees were collapsing and dying in their vomit and diarrhoea around tents where medical staff of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), short of supplies, rigged up intravenous drips.

Two mass graves dug by the French military near Zaire's Goma airport are almost brimming over with roughly 300 bodies each and a third is filling up. MSF is warning that thousands could die of cholera over the next few days. The disease is highly contagious and kills within hours.

In two other camps outside Goma, the United Nations managed to deliver food to refugees for the first time since a million Hutus began pouring out of north- west Rwanda more than a week ago. Reporters saw three World Food Programme (WFP) trucks reach Mugunga camp, 13 miles west of Goma, carrying 30 tonnes of maize and corn-soya flour - enough to feed about 60,000 people for a day.

The WFP spokeswoman, Brenda Barton, said the trucks were escorted by four armed Zairean soldiers, and passed thousands of troops of Rwanda's defeated Hutu army without incident. A convoy had failed to get through on Wednesday because the soldiers were demanding a share of the food. But at least one WFP food- truck reached Katale camp, 38 miles north of Goma, yesterday.

The main UN agencies - WFP and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) - have been widely criticised for failing to get food and other supplies to the refugees earlier. Almost all the food distributed over the past week has been the 310 tonnes provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which already had stocks of 1,100 tonnes in Goma. It is estimated that one million refugees need 500 tonnes of food a day, and aid agencies are barely providing a fifth of that.

Mugunga camp is rapidly filling with refugees driven westwards out of Goma by Zairean authorities. On Wednesday it had 10,000 people, but a day later there were more than 50,000, said David Terzi of the International Organisation for Migrations.

As he was speaking, scuffles broke out nearby around a tanker which was distributing water. Although Mugunga is less crowded and has more water than Munigi, there have already been suspected cholera cases.

Filippo Grandi, head of the UNHCR emergency unit, said his organisation was appealing to governments to intervene directly in the crisis under UNHCR co-ordination, possibly with military- style operations, because aid agencies could not cope.

Mr Grandi said the real solution was for Hutu refugees to return home, and the UNHCR was negotiating with a new government in Kigali installed by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front.

Meanwhile a French volcanologist has warned of another potential catastrophe. Jacques Durieux, director of the Active Volcano Study Group in Lyons, said the Nyiragongo volcano near Goma might erupt soon.

'According to the information we have, a lake of molten lava has just reappeared in the crater,' Mr Durieux told a French newspaper. 'This signals a serious risk of eruption, as in 1977.'

On the morning of 3 January 1977 enormous cracks appeared in Nyiragongo's side and 2.25 billion cubic feet of lava poured out of the volcano's cone to the north and south.

(Photograph omitted)