Hutus begin new exodus as French troops pack their bags: Refugees fear fresh massacres, writes Craig Nelson in Gikongoro, Rwanda

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THE SCENE is depressingly familiar: frightened and exhausted Rwandans streaming towards neighbouring Zaire with bedding, food and firewood stacked high upon their heads, herds of cattle and goats clogging the roads and young children trying desperately to keep up with the pace.

As many as 30,000 Rwandans, mostly members of the Hutu tribe, have taken to the roads in south-west Rwanda in recent days, according to Bruno Viger, the local coordinator for the medical group Medicins Sans Frontieres.

While it does not yet portend a mass exodus similar to the one that poured into north-eastern Zaire a month ago, the rise in the number of Rwandans who are fleeing the south-west region of this weary central African country in anticipation of the full pull-out this Sunday of French troops from their 'security zone' is causing anxiety. The current trickle easily could expand into a flood.

Aid workers who drove to Bukavu from Gikongoro said thousands of refugees, many driving their flocks ahead of them, had started crossing the Nyungwe forest.

'A lot of people have packed their bags and are waiting by the road, which means that if they get the signal they'll get up and go,' said Nina Winquist, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). 'There is not a rosy future,' added Fery Aalan, director of the Gikongoro office of the ICRC.

There are 25 refugee camps and more than 500,000 displaced people in this region, Rwanda's poorest.

Fear of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which controls the new government in Kigali and is led by members of the minority Tutsi tribe, is fuelling the Hutus' flight. Possible death from disease or malnutrition in refugee camps in Zaire is secondary to the apprehensions aroused by the RPF, which has been accused, usually without substantiation, of perpetrating widespread atrocities since its military victory last month.

Damian Bapfakurera, 40, left the nearby Cyanika refugee camp yesterday. 'I have no doubt the RPF will kill me after the French leave,' said Mr Bapfakurera as he trekked towards Zaire, his wife and five children in tow.

Compounding fears is the increasing visibility here of UN peacekeepers, mostly

African soldiers, who are taking over France's humanitarian aid mission.

In the view of most Rwandans, the credibility of the UN to ensure their safety is tainted, almost irreparably, following its failure in April to intervene more forcefully to stop the slaughter of nearly 500,000 Tutsis and opposition members of the majority Hutu tribe.

Most French troops and the new Kigali government continue their uphill efforts to win the confidence of Rwandans in the French-enforced 'safe haven'. The Kigali regime yesterday agreed not to introduce troops into the zone for two months, and an urgent request from a French commander two days ago for food rations to stabilise the population has been met quickly by Paris. But in general, efforts to win the hearts and minds of Rwandans in the security zone have failed miserably, largely due to the efforts of officials of the ousted government.

According to a document obtained by the UN assistant commission in Rwanda (Unamir), former government officials are conducting clandestine meetings with Rwandans inside the zone to incite anti-RPF fervour.

Furthermore, said Mr Aalan of the Red Cross, ousted officials are offering to help transport frightened Rwandans from the country and, to sweeten the inducement, are sending buses to pick them up.

The number of refugees who have taken to the roads bound for Zaire is expected to increase pressure on the French to extend its humanitarian aid mission. But the new regime wants Paris, who had supported the previous government, to withdraw its troops as soon as possible.

According to the commander of the French garrison at the Rwandan border town of Cyangugu, the sentiment among French troops is clear. 'Why should we stay with a government that doesn't want us?' asked Colonel Jacques Hogard.