Rwanda rebels say renegades killed bishops

WRAPPED in shawls, the bodies in the courtyard kept silent vigil as figures passed through the gathering dusk. Bony feet protruded from the shrouds, indicating the slow wasting of hunger.

Kabgayi is home to hundreds of starving civilians who have been living under occupation by government troops for the past two months. As their wounds testify, many are the survivors of attacks by government- sponsored militias; others are living evidence of atrocities committed by the rebels.

The parish mission on the outskirts of the government- held town of Gitarama was the biggest and one of the country's oldest centres of Christianity. But last Sunday three leading Rwandan bishops and 10 priests were gun ned down there by renegade members of the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP).

The clerics had sought refuge in a parish centre in the village of Byimana, south of Kabgayi. Among them were the bishops of Kigali, Kabgayi and Byumba, Hutus of long-standing ecclesiastical office. The group had been brought behind rebel lines to Byimana for protection. Massacres of Tutsi civilians had taken place in churches and parish centres, leading to rumours that certain clergy members have facilitated or condoned the killings.

The priests and bishops were moved twice before being installed in a house in Byimana under RPF guard. Last Sunday four renegade rebels burst into the hiding place, spraying rooms with automatic gunfire. Only the guards survived. One of the attackers was shot dead before the other three escaped.

'Some of the men who carried out this attack had family members butchered by government soldiers and Hutu militias,' said the RPF colonel, Frank Mugambage. 'We have no evidence implicating the priests or bishops in kil lings, but these soldiers must have believed they were somehow involved.' The RPF commander on the Kabgayi front said the renegades were known. If caught they will face courts martial and execution by firing squad.

Yesterday, as the clerics were buried, a handful of RPF soldiers lounged around the side entrance to the church, rifles slung over their shoulders. Inside, a funeral mass was coming to an end. The last shovelfuls of clay were being thrown into a tomb which had been opened in the apse floor.

The RPF has not been slow to mete out summary justice to government soldiers or Hutu militiamen who have massacred civilians. The guilty are bound hand and foot before being shot mercilessly through the head. If not despatched with the first bullet, they are often left to bleed to death.

But incidents such as that perpetrated last Sunday by renegade rebels pose a severe embarrassment for the Tutsi- dominated rebels. The RPF wants to convince the populace, whether Hutu or Tutsi, of its ethnic impartiality. If it is to maintain its credibility by embracing both tribal groups it must not revenge itself against Hutus alone.

The RPF military campaign is going well. But to win the war and overthrow the hardline Hutu regime is only half the battle. General Paul Kagame and his fellow rebels know that if they are ever to establish a government of national unity they must first win over that portion of the population which regards them as the enemy.

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