Tide of refugees flees Zaire's battleground

Warfare between the army and ethnic Tutsi rebels threatens to engulf central Africa. David Orr reports
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Almost a quarter of a million Rwandan and Burundian refugees were on the road last night, as fighting continued in eastern Zaire. The Hutu refugees and displaced Zaireans were flooding towards the city of Bukavu in eastern Zaire, fleeing the fighting further south between soldiers and Banyamulenge, who are ethnic Tutsis.

But at the same time the United Nations reported about 10,000 Hutu refugees were fleeing Bukavu for fear of being attacked by Tutsi rebels fighting Zairean troops in the neighbouring town of Uvira. A UN spokeswoman said refugees from neighbouring camps were also taking to the road in Bukavu, which is unaffected by the fighting.

The conflict between the Zairean army (FAZ) and the Banyamulenge heightens the risk of a major conflagration in central Africa. Fuelled by political instability and ethnic strife, unrest is spreading like wildfire across the borders of Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire.

The refugees, mostly Rwandan Hutus who fled Rwanda after the Hutu-led genocide of at least half a million Tutsis in 1994, have abandoned a dozen camps around the Zairean town of Uvira. The UN evacuated 48 aid workers yesterday who had been trapped in the town.

A number of refugees are said to have died in attacks by the Banyamulenge, Tutsis who moved to Zaire from Rwanda about 200 years ago. The Banyamulenge are unpopular in Zaire on account of their relative prosperity.

"Some 221,000 refugees are estimated to be moving northwards towards Bukavu", a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokes- man said yesterday.

"The roads are blocked by rebels and all the villages are empty of civilians as well. Both civilians and refugees are moving into the hills". One Zairean soldier was killed and one wounded in an attack by unidentified gunmen on a UNHCR base at the weekend.

Meanwhile, fighters from Rwanda are reported to have attacked FAZ positions near the Zairean town of Goma. The Tutsi-dominated Rwandan army has launched a number of attacks in response to incursions into Rwanda by Hutu militias based in the refugee camps of eastern Zaire. Recent skirmishes threaten to erupt into full-scale war. According to a recent UN report, the FAZ are backing the Hutu militias in their fight against the Rwandan regime which drove them into exile after the 1994 genocide.

Zaire says the Banyamulenge rebels are supported by Rwanda. There is growing evidence that Tutsi militias from Burundi are also reinforcing the Banyamulenge rebels. Military sources say the FAZ are being resupplied with heavy weapons to respond to the attacks.

To defuse the growing tension, the UN has dispatched an envoy, Ibrahim Fall, to eastern Zaire. He is talking to the local authorities who this month gave the Banyamulenge an ultimatum to leave the country.

The situation in Zaire is rendered all the more volatile by the months- long absence of President Mobutu Sese Seko, recovering from treatment for prostate cancer in Switzerland. There are fears of an army coup while Mr Mobutu is abroad.

Even when its President is at home, Zaire teeters on the brink of anarchy. Many regions have virtually broken loose. The notorious ill-discipline of the Zairean army, the Banyamulenge insurgency and therefugee camps make for a lethal cocktail of unrest in a region which is already unstable.

Almost three-quarters of a million exiled Rwandan Hutus live in the camps. Many took part in the massacres of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda two years ago and despite the UNHCR's efforts, most refuse to return home for fear they will be subjected to Tutsi justice - or revenge. Rwanda's government knows there will be no peace until refugees are repatriated. But the extremists in the camps have other ideas: a return to Rwanda by force.