Shots halt stampede from Rwanda

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The Independent Online
BUKAVU - France pulled out its last troops from Rwanda yesterday, leaving hordes of frightened Hutu refugees desperate to go with them but held back by Zairean paratroops firing into the air at a closed border crossing.

Less than half-an-hour after French Legionnaires pulled out of the Ruzizi border post, hundreds of refugees, fearing Tutsi reprisals, swarmed on to the rickety river bridge, determined to reach the Zairean shore and what they regard as safety.

Ethiopian United Nations peace-keepers stood by helplessly as the refugees ran across, only to be halted in their tracks by Zairean paratroops firing into the air. Retreating in confusion the refugees dropped shoes, hats and mats in the stampede. There were two more attempts to storm the crossing. Each was repelled by the Zaireans with a volley of shots.

The Zairean authorities, yielding to pleas from aid officials, later reopened another bridge crossing to ease the stampede. Kris Jan owski of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that the Zaireans had reopened Ruzizi-Two, a bridge 20km (12 miles) south of the main crossing. A trickle of refugees was already crossing, he said.

Mr Janowski that said the UNHCR was studying plans to bring trucks to the Zairean side of the border and transport refugees who walked to Ruzizi-Two to camps around Bukavu. Up to 800,000 refugees were sheltering in the French zone from Rwanda's three-month civil war.

At the main crossing, Ethiopian troops were subjected to abuse and missiles from furious Hutus. They accused the Ethiopians of being allies of the victorious Tutsi- dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). Later in the morning the situation calmed down but was still tense. Refugees and Zairean soldiers stared angrily at each other.

From the Zairean hillside a machine-gun was trained on the 5,000 milling refugees, while members of the 150-strong force posted along the border kept watch. Not everyone had given up. The most adventurous refugees used straw mats as rafts, paddling across the Ruzizi. Others bought a passage on Zairean canoes. Some were swept downstream by the current.

It was a disastrous start for the African troops making up the UN force, due to replace the French in the south-west Rwandan 'safe zone'. The 800 Ethiopians are part of a 2,200-strong African contingent. 'If this is the first indication of what will happen in the south- western region with the withdrawal of the French, it doesn't bode well,' said Nina Winquist, spokeswoman for the Internation al Committee for the Red Cross.

Cheered by children, 150 legionnaires of France's Operation Turquoise were the last French troops to cross the border at Cyangugu into the Zairean town of Bukavu, ending a two-month operation which Paris said was humanitarian. The 60-vehicle convoy was waved through by Zairean paratroops despite the closure of the border.

At a brief military ceremony at Kamembe airport, outside Cyangugu, a French lieutenant- colonel, Jacques Hogard, commander of Operation Turquoise in the Cyangugu area, passed on control of the zone to an Ethiopian colonel, Tadele Gebreselassie.

Then the French tricolour was lowered, to be replaced by Ethiopian and UN flags. French forces had kept the RPF out of the zone and had protected Tutsi refugees inside the zone from further massacres by Hutu troops and militia.

(Photograph omitted)