Refugees massacred on return to Burundi, says UN

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The Independent Online
Geneva (agencies) - Nearly 300 Hutus returning from refugee camps in eastern Zaire were massacred in a church in Burundi last month, according to UN officials.

The report, by the UN Human Rights Centre, highlights a disturbing aspect of the exodus of Hutu refugees from Zaire, which has become a flood in recent days. Hutus returning to Rwanda have been received frostily but not mistreated. But many other refugees are trying to return to their homes in neighbouring Burundi, where they are walking into a continuing Hutu-Tutsi civil war.

The UN said its representatives learned of the attack when they visited Cibitoke province in northwestern Burundi on Thursday. Based on interviews with wounded survivors, authorities and witnesses, the field-workers said 258 people died immediately of their bullet and hand grenade wounds. Some 110 people were wounded, of whom 40 later died, bringing the death toll to 298, the centre said.

Christiane Berthiaume, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the incident took place in a church in Murambi on 22 October. The victims, believed to be Burundian Hutus, were among the first refugees to return to Burundi when fighting broke out around UN refugee camps in eastern Zaire last month.

A spokesman for Burundi's Tutsi-led army called the report "propaganda" from the National Council for the Defence of Democracy, a Hutu exile opposition group. "This is pure fabrication," Maj. Mamert Sinarizi said yesterday. "I can tell you there was no massacre."

Meanwhile talks in Stuttgart between 35 nations ready in principle to take part in a military intervention force in central Africa got off to a slow and confusing start yesterday. The talks, between senior military officers, are expected to stretch through the weekend. The aim is to produce a menu of possible actions for governments to consider, ranging from the 11,000-strong intervention force originally proposed to something much less ambitious.

"By the end of the weekend I would hope we will have developed a full slate of options," said Lieutenant-General Maurice Baril of Canada, which is coordinating the UN-authorised mission

The original aim to was to escort aid to Rwandan refugees in eastern Zaire and encourage them to go home.

But the voluntary return of 500,000 Rwandans in the last week has produced sharp disagreements on what kind of mission to send, if any. Governments have been unable to agree on the scale of the remaining problem, how many refugees remain in Zaire, their location and condition.