Rwandans flee big rebel push

GOMA, Zaire - Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing a rebel offensive in northwest Rwanda, creating a fresh humanitarian crisis outside the 'safe haven' declared by French forces further south, aid workers said yesterday.

The human tidal wave is being driven along by shelling and fear as the rebel Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) closes in on remnants of the government army retreating into a north-west corner of Rwanda just across the border from here.

'It's extremely unstable. Huge numbers of people are on the move. We reckon we saw 500,000 people on Wednesday and Thursday alone,' said Maurice Herson of Oxfam after a five-day assessment visit to the region. Aid agencies have not been able to supply food or water, as the rebel advance took all by surprise.

Whole forests are being denuded by the ant-like army of fugitives as they stream westwards. 'People were running out of houses, picking up anything and just going,' said Anna McCord, also of Oxfam.

'The rebels are firing a few shots to drive people out. There is a tremendous fear of the RPF, that they will be massacred.'

Those fleeing are mainly of the majority Hutu tribe, whose militia and government troops are blamed by other aid workers for the massacre of about half a million people. Most of these were from the minority Tutsi tribe or were Hutu opponents of the government.

Meanwhile, thousands of refugees returned to their homes in Kigali yesterday. Columns of Hutus and Tutsis left the camps that the RPF had moved them to last Monday after it had captured the capital, and wound their way through streets still reeking of death.

'We have been moving the people for their own security. Kigali is now secure so the people can go home but elsewhere there is still danger,' RPF Lieutenant Tony Kurumba said yesterday.