Panic as Rwanda border closes

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The Independent Online
BUKAVU - Zaire closed its border at Bukavu yesterday, leaving thousands of Hutu refugees stranded on the Rwandan side of the frontier, write Craig Nelson and agencies. Refugees wept and pleaded with border guards to no avail. Scores piled into canoes plying across the waterway and the most desperate swam across, pulling their cattle with them.

Earlier several thousand refugees filed over the border in a last-minute escape from their country. It took the Zairean authorities more than seven hours to shut the border although they had informed aid agencies that it was officially closed in the morning. At 2pm local time red-bereted Zairean paratroopers moved in. Wielding M-16 rifles, they drove the heavily-laden refugees off the rickety bridge.

Aid officials had begged the Zaireans not to go ahead with the closure, saying it could spark a stampede by refugees fleeing a protection zone before French troops pull out. The rush of Hutus was provoked by fears that the Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front would seek revenge against them after the French handover to UN peace- keepers. France remained on course to pull its troops out of south-west Rwanda tonight, despite appeals from Washington, the United Nations and relief agencies to stay and help prevent a new catastrophe.

The humanitarian agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said nothing had been done to stop Hutu militias attacking Tutsis once the French left: 'That the Security Council has not set up a satisfactory force to replace the French is a scandal. The operation may have been a public relations success, but could reveal itself as an empty gesture.' MSF said nothing was ready in Zaire for a new influx and 'there could be a catastrophe if the exodus builds up'.

The French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, has said any extension of the two-month humanitarian 'Operation Turquoise' in Rwanda could be considered only if the UN issued a new mandate and if the Kigali government publicly requested this. 'Neither of these conditions has been fulfilled today,' the Defence Minister, Francois Leotard, said.

Across the border in Burundi, where tensions between Hutus and Tutsis are near breaking point, a Hutu militia leader was murdered yesterday. Sylvestre Mfayokurera was a chief of the Generation of Democracy in Burundi, the militia wing of the main Hutu party, the Front for Democracy in Burundi. He was killed by unknown attackers overnight at his home in a suburb of the capital, Bujumbura. The interim President, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, appealed on radio to those who had elected Mfayokurera to parliament in his home northern province of Ngozi not to seek revenge.