Rebels fire warning shot to UN force

Click to follow
Goma - Heavy fighting flared around the eastern Zaire town of Goma as Tutsi rebels sought to consolidate gains over their Hutu foes ahead of the arrival of a multinational peace force.

Underlining hazards awaiting a UN intervention force, firing from mortar, anti-aircraft and machine-guns boomed around the teeming Mugunga camp six miles west of the rebel-held town on Rwanda's border. Goma residents said they believed rebels were trying to take on Hutu fighters before the arrival of the Canadian-led force in a few days.

Some estimates say Mugunga is now home to 400,000 Hutu refugees - one- third of the Rwandan and Burundian Hutus scattered in eastern Zaire by the month-long rebellion.

After four weeks of mounting crisis, Western powers have agreed to take action in central Africa, but have stressed it would be a strictly humanitarian mission to help more than 1 million refugees and displaced Zaireans.

But even before setting foot in the Great Lakes region, home to an explosive cocktail of mixed ethnic and political conflicts, differences emerged over whether the mission could succeed with such limited aims.

The head of the UN's food aid arm said the force must separate "the bad guys with the guns" from starving refugees, or its mission would have to be repeated. Catherine Bertini, executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), also said that while the first step would be ensuring no weapons interfered with humanitarian work, ultimately, the fighters would have to be disarmed.

"The step necessary for peace in the long term is disarmament, but if we're talking about keeping people alive and feeding people today, we would want to separate the bad guys with guns from the people who need to live today," she said.

White House press secretary Mike McCurry said Washington believed the mission would have to be clearly defined and not try to disarm militants. But regional experts say that without tackling Hutu thugs, blamed for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the humanitarian side of the mission will fail.

Former members of the Rwandan government army and the Interahamwe militia massacred an estimated 800,000 people, mostly minority Tutsis, before taking sanctuary with thousands of other Hutus after Rwanda's Tutsis won power and stopped the killing.

"This is a false start. As long as the international force is not prepared to disarm the ex-FAR [army troops] and the Interahamwe, its objectives will not be achieved," Seth Kamanzi, an adviser to the Rwandan president, said.

Mr McCurry said the US commitment to the force involved sending 1,000 ground troops to Zaire. An additional 2,000 to 3,000 American troops would go to nearby countries to help with support activities.

The world community is eager to avoid a re-run of 1994, when it ended up feeding many of those responsible for the slaughter in Rwanda. They then turned the camps into military bases for a possible comeback, infuriating the Tutsi-led governments of Rwanda and Burundi and sowing the seeds of the present crisis.