Thousands flee rebel advance on Rwandan capital: David Orr in Kigali watched the throng of destitute civilians escaping the city before the irresistible advance of the RPF forces

ALONG a road flanked by abandoned houses and littered with the wrecks of shot-up cars moves a husband and wife with three small children. They carry whatever possessions they have salvaged from their home in Kigali. As well as carrying parcels in their hands, both parents balance heavy loads on their heads. The children, also burdened, go barefoot.

This family is part of a vast throng slowly making its way out of Rwanda's embattled capital. Tens of thousands of civilians are fleeing as rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) tighten their grip on this city of scattered hillside settlements. Artillery shells and mortar rounds fall on Kigali by day and by night and these people are desperate to vacate the city before it is claimed by the RPF. The fate that awaits them at the end of their long march is uncertain.

Representatives of the RPF and government armies held their first direct talks while gunfire echoed around the capital. The two sides discussed a draft ceasefire proposal prepared by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (Unamir), calling for an immediate end to hostilities.

The rebels are now advancing on Gitarama, 25 miles to the south of the capital. The remains of the rump government is holed up in a former civil service training centre in the town. Many interim ministers have already decamped to Kibuye on Lake Kivu by the Zairean frontier.

The RPF said yesterday that they had captured a military camp close to the town. An announcement on RPF radio said the Nyanza camp had fallen to their forces, forcing the government to flee.

The UN said yesterday it was checking reports from aid agencies that 500 people had been massacred two days ago at a refugee camp south of Kigali.

'I am alarmed by reports just received that massacres occurred in Kabgayi two days ago, (that) 500 people were murdered. We are trying to verify these reports,' a UN official said.

UN officers warned earlier that they feared government troops and militiamen fleeing Kigali would massacre civilians in the face of advances by rebel forces.

By moving on Gitarama the rebels are driving the discredited government before them and threatening to cut the road which links the town with Kigali. If they can take Gitarama, they will isolate the besieged government garrison in the capital, depriving it of supplies and reinforcements.

'There's no doubt the rebels are in a good position to cut the road leading southwards,' said a UN Major, Jean-Guy Plante. 'If they have not already done so it is probably because they want to allow as many civilians as possible to pass. I believe the government forces are now preparing to counter-attack to free the route.'

I stood on a hill overlooking a lush green valley just south of Kigali. Below me stretching into the distance ran a long multi-coloured ribbon of destitute humanity. Looking down this road it was possible to believe the whole of Rwanda was on the move.

This is not far from the truth. Millions have been displaced from their homes by the fighting and massacres which have ravaged the country for nearly two months. Some seek refuge in miserable camps by the roadside. Others keep moving, caught up in the maelstrom of fear and uncertainty which life here has become.

Yesterday the UN continued evacuating civilians from makeshift camps around Kigale. I accompanied a convoy of five trucks carrying more than a hundred people, most of them Hutus living in squalor in a football stadium.

About 7,000 are estimated to be encamped in the stadium, huddled in lean-to shelters around a running track covered with garbage and human excrement. There is no running water. I asked one young man why he wanted to leave. The place is infernal but at least it enjoys the presence of UN monitors at its entrance.

'There's no life for us here,' he said. 'We want to return to our homes in the south. We've heard there is fighting there, but we could just as easily be killed by a shell here.' Just then a huge explosion resounded somewhere in the valley below the stadium.

After driving them 10 miles along the road southwards, the UN convoy unloaded its human cargo. The people were left to continue their flight on foot.

More families, mostly Tutsis, were evacuated yesterday from the Hotel Mille Collines towards the rebel-held north of the city. As many as 4,000 people wait to be taken away from the nearby Eglise de la Sainte Famille. The evacuation can only proceed in fits and starts. At this rate it will take more than a month for all the civilians to be removed from the locations where they have taken refuge.

(Photograph omitted)