Mix-up blamed for train deaths

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Washington (Reuters) - The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) blamed a breakdown in co-ordination with local authorities for the death of around 100 Rwandan Hutu refugees in a packed train on Sunday.

Sadako Ogata, the High Commissioner, said: "These arrangements did not move with full coordination ... the military on the ground and our office were not really co-ordinated because of the difficulty of co-ordination as such."

UN officials in Zaire said the refugees suffocated or were crushed to death in the badly overcrowded train carrying them from a refugee camp to the northeastern town of Kisangani, where they were to be airlifted home to Rwanda.

Ms Ogata said that local authorities had ordered the train to leave Biaro, about 25 miles south of Kisangani, "without HCR clearance" because too many people were already aboard as the train prepared to pull out.

No UNHCR staff were aboard the train, made up of six open-topped cars, she said. "It just went," carrying the refugees, railway staff, six soldiers, presumably rebels, and a local employee of the UN World Food Programme.

Quoting from a UNHCR report on the tragedy, she said refugees swarmed on board at two stops, where as many as 5,000 to 6,000 people were waiting to board.

Many probably died at the first stop in the course of storming the train, she said. And "the train was made to stop again and others scrambled to get on board."

Survivors said thousands of refugees had swarmed onto the train as it pulled out of a station near Biaro camp. The weak, children and dozens of desperately ill adults aboard were forced to the bottom of the cars in the crush that followed.

The railway is controlled by Zairean rebel authorities, who have either resisted or co-operated reluctantly with the UN effort to airlift the Hutu refugees, who number about 80,000, back to Rwanda.

Ms Ogota said that if a UN effort to begin the airlift last month had gone ahead as planned, the tragedy would not have occurred.