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Hutus trek home from camps at gunpoint

Butare - Rwandan soldiers prodded tens of thousands of Hutu refugees out of Butare towards their villages yesterday while fears intensified that mass returns would touch off a wave of deadly reprisals by Tutsis.

An estimated 60,000 people were camped in the open in and around Butare, having fled from the Kibeho refugee camp, 20 miles to the west after thousands were gunned down by soldiers or trampled to death in stampedes on Saturday.

An official UN estimate said at least 2,000 men, women and children were killed at Kibeho, but some UN officials and private aid workers say the number was probably much higher.

Most of the camp refugees are Hutus who took shelter last year, fearing reprisals by the victorious Tutsi-led rebel army. The Tutsi-dominated government in Kigali has been trying for months to get the more than 2 million refugees in Rwanda, and in neighbouring countries, to go home.

Its soldiers were continuing that effort in Butare yesterday, sometimes harshly. Aid workers and others said many refugees were being abused by civilians and soldiers.

"Local people standing along the route are carrying sticks and hitting them quite heavily," Brynjar Wetteland, with the UN Children's Fund, said. "I even saw lots of soldiers hit people that were quite unable to defend themselves."

The UN special envoy to Rwanda, Shaharyar Khan, said about 200,000 refugees were on the move throughout the country. He and other UN officials warned of hostility towards returning refugees. A UN military spokesman in Kigali, Lieutenant Kent Page, said he had seen them whipped and stoned by civilians and soldiers.

In Geneva, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said the Rwandan government had reported that at least nine returning refugees had been killed and 1,100 had been locked in a bank in the village of Ngenda. The building is supposed to hold 500 people. Many returning refugees were in bad condition, the spokesman said. Some had machete wounds, others had been stoned or beaten.

Mr Khan said some 70 per cent of the refugees were expected to stream into four villages. Some 10,000 arrived yesterday in one, Gitarama. "The government is conscious of the fact that there is going to be a huge problem in terms of food and water," Mr Khan said. "There is also a question of hostility."

At Kibeho, a standoff continued between soldiers and about 600 men, women and children who were refusing to leave a school. Some were hard- line Hutus who have the most to fear from the army. Others were apparently being held against their will as human shields, Benedict Giaever, a UN Rwanda Emergency Organisation field officer, said. "There is a very hard core inside the building with weapons and grenades and they are trying to persuade the other people not to leave."

Tutsi soldiers have cut off food and water to the camp. A Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) officer said: "At the moment we feel there is no need to use force but we have enough firepower should the need arise." The International Committee of the Red Cross was mediating yesterday between the RPA and the last Hutus, who want free passage to refugee camps in Zaire.

Aid workers and witnesses said last weekend's slaughter was unprovoked. Survivors said the UN should have done more to stop the violence, which happened within sight of 200 UN peace-keepers.