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Insecurity and fear in Rwanda 'safe area'

FOR THE moment, calamity has been averted. Outside the gates of a local nursing school, hundreds of Rwandans stand under the searing equatorial sun and wait for emergency food rations. Nearby, on the grounds of a church-run hospital, more than 1,000 people queue patiently for measles vaccinations.

But the rainy season begins next month and the steep, rutted dirt road that leads to this small built-up village in southern Rwanda is expected to become all but impassable to the trucks carrying emergency food deliveries which now stave off starvation.

Furthermore, the scheduled withdrawal of French troops in two weeks from the UN-approved 'safe haven' which encompasses this hamlet is arousing fears among residents of a resumption of the four-year civil war.

Thus, for aid workers and the 30,000 mostly transient Rwandans here, uncertainty, along with the seasonable plumes of choking white dust, fill the air.

The precariousness of life in this village reflects the failure by the French military and the aid organisations to ensure little more than a modicum of stability inside the protective zone, which was established by French troops nearly two months ago. Its main aim was to shield members of the minority Tutsi tribe from extremist Hutu militiamen and Rwandan government troops. While lives unquestionably have been saved, the security that the international community hope to promote in the area appears fleeting.

For example, since Tuesday the aid organisation Care International has distributed food sufficient for only two and a half days. Out of a total of 160 tonnes of food that the World Food Programme (WFP) was under contract to provide to Care, it has delivered only 67 tonnes since early July.

'If WFP doesn't come through with the food quickly, the situation will get very difficult,' said Dean Engle, who is overseeing the food distribution in Kaduha for Care. Severe malnutrition already afflicts 20 per cent of the local population, according to a doctor who treats Rwandans uprooted from their homes.

Public relations is one reason for the food shortage, argued Jack Soldate, Care's director of operations for south- west Rwanda. He said that the WFP, a UN agency based in Rome, is directing the bulk of its food supplies instead to meeting the well-publicised problems of Rwandan refugees in north-eastern Zaire.

Another reason for lack of food in the safe zone is lingering friction between the French military and the aid organisations, who are loath to be viewed as acting at the behest of Paris.

Lieutenant Colonel Eric de Stavenrath, commander of the French contingent at nearby Gigonkoro, conceded that the French military had been forced to perform more humanitarian work than it had planned.

'The humanitarian aid groups do politics and the French military does humanitarian work,' said Lt Col de Stavenrath, who attended a United States military school with the new Rwandan Vice- President and Defence Minister, Paul Kagame.

More worrisome is the withdrawal later this month of French troops. Confidence in the ability of the replacement 5,500-strong UN force to preserve order in south- west Rwanda is low. Troops from half a dozen African nations have already begun replacing French forces. 'We're trying to stabilise the situation but everyone could leave in two hours,' said Lt Col de Stavenrath. 'It's very volatile.'

The most frequently cited reason for that lack of trust was the decision by the UN Security Council to remove most of the 2,500 peacekeepers from the Rwandan capital of Kigali in the middle of the bloodbath that followed the death in April of the former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana in an plane crash. In three months, an estimated half a million Tutsi and opposition Hutu were slain by Rwandan government soldiers and extremist Hutu militiamen.

BUJUMBURA - The head of an opposition group was placed under house arrest in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, yesterday after three days of street clashes, Reuter reports. The opposition Party for the Reconciliation of the People, led by Mathias Hitimana, had protested against the arrest of seven academics who had launched a civil unrest campaign to bring work in Bujumbura to a standstill.