Rwandan rebels claim capture of key town

KIGALI - The Rwandan rebel commander said yesterday his forces had captured the town of Gitarama and that members of the interim government formerly based there were on the run.

'Yesterday there was a big fight,' the military chief of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), Major-General Paul Kagame, said. 'The town has been cleared by our forces and the government is retreating in the hills.'

The capture of Gitarama, which could not be independently confirmed, would mean the rebels are poised for an outright military victory after a two-month offensive. Gitarama has been the seat of an interim government set up after the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana on 6 April. The murder sparked tribal massacres of up to 500,000 people.

Most ministers fled Gitarama earlier this month. A United Nations spokesman said on Sunday that President Venat Theodore Sindikubwabo had moved to the north- western town of Gisenyi, heartland of the Hutu elite.

Gitarama, which is 40km (25 miles) from Kigali, also straddles the last road that government forces had out of the capital. If they want to escape now they will have to flee along hilly backpaths.

Major Jean-Guy Plante, spokesman for the UN peace- keeping force, said there had been heavy fighting around Gitarama on Sunday night.

Asked whether General Kagame's claim was true, the government army's Brigadier-General Marcel Gatsinzi said when he arrived for peace talks at the UN headquarters: 'I cannot confirm it. I have no news.'

General Kagame told reporters: 'We have moved the seat of that government and they are on the run. They must realise they have made a lot of mistakes for which they must answer.'

The rebels had also made significant gains during fighting in Kigali on Sunday, he said. They now controlled most of Gikondo district and were closing in on an army barracks. 'There is still a need to gain some ground, but not as much as three weeks ago. The political strategy takes over when we take areas enough to dictate terms,' General Kagame said.

He repeated that the RPF, most of whose fighters are Tutsis, would not halt until the massacres were stopped.

Philippe Gaillard, of the International Committee of the Red Cross, came to UN headquarters to appeal to the RPF not to shell the ICRC hospital area. On Sunday, 10 mortar bombs exploded around the hospital in the government-held city centre. Two more exploded just outside the compound yesterday. 'I have asked Kagame not to kill us, even by mistake,' he said.