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Rwanda leaders quit last refuge

RWANDA'S government was forced to flee from its refuge in the southern town of Gitarama yesterday as rebel troops advanced from the north, leaving 400,000 starving refugees in their wake.

In the capital, Kigali, the last remaining government bases came under heavy attack from the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), prompting the United Nations to suspend the evacuation of trapped civilians to safety across the city's front lines.

The hills of Kigali echoed with the sound of gunfire and exploding artillery shells. Bursts of heavy machine-gun fire alternated with the crump of mortar bombs. Plumes of black smoke rose from blazing buildings in the government-held area.

Yesterday, the rebels launched another attack on the government police headquarters situated on a hill near the city centre. With the RPF firmly established in Kigali, only the police and Presidential Guard headquarters remained in government hands.

The streets of the capital were deserted as residents surged along the road towards the Burundi border. Up to 400,000 civilians are reported to be straggling along the route or languishing in camps along the roadside. Most of those in the camps are city people unversed in the basic art of survival in the open. This is the rainy season in Rwanda - by night tropical rainstorms lash the countryside with terrible ferocity.

Most of the fleeing mass has now passed the town of Gitarama where the rump government was holed up after vacating the capital 25 miles to the north last month. Gitarama is believed to be close to falling to the rebels, and government ministers have fled the town of Kibuye on Lake Kivu.

The International Committee of the Red Cross fears that if the rebels cut the road below Gitarama it will no longer be able to deliver food supplies to the tens of thousands in the camps. The organisation says it only has food for a few more distributions.

The rebels, who captured a large supply of weapons when they took the government barracks earlier this month, have more than enough firepower to keep this conflict going. Their only worry is that they might be forced into a peace deal or the expanded UN mission in Rwanda (Unamir) might arrive before they have overturned the government. Unamir is continuing its evacuation of civilians from a number of locations around the city. Over the weekend UN soldiers transported Tutsi families from the Hotel Mille Collines across the line to the airport now in rebel hands.

More than 400 civilians remain in the hotel where they have been hiding from the murderous attentions of the Hutu death squads.

Unamir hopes to start evacuation of the Eglise de la Sainte Famille today. Some 3,000 Hutus and Tutsis are gathered in the grounds of the church which is in government-controlled territory. More than 7,000 people are caught in the football stadium too frightened to move. With little food and no running water, the conditions in these makeshift camps are appalling.

Senior commanders of the RPF and government forces are scheduled to hold their first face-to-face meeting today. UN sources have indicated that these are talks about talks, rather than full-blown peace negotiations. For its part, the RPF has made it clear that it will not halt its campaign until it has achieved its twin military objectives: incapacitating the government forces and bringing about an end to the massacre of civilians.

(Photograph omitted)