Paris rejects UN call to keep troops in Rwanda

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ROME - Up to two million more refugees could flee Rwanda if United Nations peacekeeping troops are not ready to take over when French forces withdraw in two weeks' time, a senior UN official said yesterday

The UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Peter Hansen, called on UN members to be ready to take over from 1,200 French troops scheduled to withdraw from the central African state on 22 August when their two- month mandate expires.

'If the international community is not ready to put its actions where its words are and prevent a breakdown of the situation in the south-west, it would create a vacuum that would lead to instability,' he said.

'We could very well see an outflow of between 1 and 2 million displaced people going across the border into Bukavu (Zaire)', he told reporters in Rome.

In Paris, Alain Juppe, the French Foreign Minister, rebuffed renewed calls from the UN to delay the withdrawal. 'Our position remains as it was expressed by the Prime Minister (Edouard Balladur) in Goma. Conforming to our mandate under Security Council resolution 929, we will withdraw by 22 August,' a ministry official said.

Nearly 1 million refugees fled across the border to Goma in eastern Zaire three weeks ago. Only a trickle have returned since the victory of the mainly Tutsi Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) in three months of civil war.

Hundreds of thousands of Hutus, whose kinsmen have been widely blamed for the massacres of 500,000 Tutsis and Hutu opponents of the ousted government, are sheltering in French-patrolled safe havens in the south-west. Many have threatened to leave if the French return home, with the Zairean border town of Bukavu, which is already overwhelmed by 300,000 refugees, the most likely destination.

So far, the UN is still some 1,500 troops short of the 5,500 required to keep the peace in the country, which has been devastated by its genocidal civil war. An estimated 500 troops from Chad, Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Niger and Senegal, are already in the area and are expected to join the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (Unamir 2) set to replace the French troops when they pull out.

The massacres in Rwanda sparked one of the world's largest movements of refugees. The cost of relief aid had soared to dollars 430m ( pounds 281m) as a result of the exodus, Mr Hansen said. That was way beyond the dollars 270m worth of aid that had been estimated only one month ago before the exodus.

'It is frightening to see how fast a moving target we are shooting at,' Mr Hansen said.

Donor nations had already pledged about half the dollars 430m and Mr Hansen said he was confident that the rest would be received by the end of the year.

At least 25,000 people have died in refugee camps in the past three weeks, stricken by epidemics of cholera, dysentry, dehydration and other diseases.

Mr Hansen said a recent study by the medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) had shown only 0.5 per cent of the estimated 2.7 million refugees suffered from severe malnutrition.

'The big issues are water, sanitation and medical treatment,' he said.