Refugees on the move again as French pull-out looms

WILL THERE be another mass exodus of Rwandans into eastern Zaire? That's the question international aid groups are asking as French troops prepare to withdraw from the 'safe haven' in southern Rwanda on Sunday.

According to the UN, more than 2,000 Rwandans, mostly Hutus, passed through the Zairean border post at Bukavu yesterday, bringing to 4,000 the number of Rwandans who have fled the French security zone in the past 48 hours.

The UN reported yesterday that 20,000 Hutus were streaming out of the southern city of Gingonkoro towards the frontier, but despite this trend 'the gut feeling among aid groups is that it won't happen', said a UN spokesman, Ray Wilkinson, who visited Bukavu yesterday. He was referring to a human flood akin to the one that poured into eastern Zaire a month ago, when at least 1 million Hutus crossed the border at Goma in five days to escape the forces of the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) which now controls the Kigali government.

While the RPF regime in Kigali has agreed not to introduce troops into the 'safe haven' for two months, the imminent pull- out of French soldiers, plus the lack of confidence in the UN peace-keeping troops replacing them, has sparked a new migration which is seen as a setback for the new government bent on trying to restore stability to a country rent by a four-year-long civil war and ethnic slaughter that cost the lives of at least half- a-million Tutsis and opposition Hutus.

At the same time, such reports are a propaganda coup for the regime's domestic and exiled political opponents, which is using them to whip up further anti-RPF and anti-Tutsi hysteria.

Even if Mr Wilkinson's hunch proves to be true and the latest migration turns out to be only a faint facsimile of last month's, it will be little solace to the thousands of Rwandans bound for Bukavu. Already, there are 12 camps housing 52,000 refugees in the area, in addition to the 70,000 living in the streets and along the steep hillsides of the picturesque lakeside city where, according to Jane Pierce of the UN World Food Programme, there is only enough food for three days left in the area.