Troops move in as Zaire hastens repatriation of Rwandan refugees

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Troops have closed off eastern Zaire's second largest camp for Rwandan refugees in an effort to hasten the return home of some 190,000 people who have been living there since the upheavals in Rwanda of a year-and- a-half ago.

Aid officials fear the operation may spark violence if the refugees, who are nearly all from the majority Hutu group, resist Zairean efforts to empty the camp.

Zairean commandos and armed border guards took up positions around Kibumba camp, on the outskirts of Goma town, early yesterday. The troops told refugees they could no longer come and go from the camp which would soon be closed. Shops and businesses within the camp have been told to cease trading. Zairean officials say they will shortly launch "an information campaign" designed to convince the refugees that they should leave.

A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told the Independent that the refugees were "calm but curious" as up to 250 Zairean troops deployed around Kibumba camp in the early hours of yesterday. UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration supplied trucks for the transport of Rwandans willing to return home but no refugees are believed to have boarded the vehicles. In recent months, the number of returnees have fallen to a dozen or fewer a day.

The Rwandans fled to eastern Zaire ahead of the victorious advance of Tutsi-dominated rebels determined to end the genocide which claimed the lives of more than half a million people in 1994. Most of those massacred under the then Hutu-dominated Rwandan government were members of the Tutsi minority.

There are widespread fears among the refugees in Zaire and in neighbouring countries that they will be persecuted if they return home. The new Tutsi government has imprisoned at least 50,000 people pending investigation of their participation in the genocide. Many prisoners have died because of appalling conditions in the jails, and hundreds of returnees have been killed in revenge attacks by the survivors of the 1994 massacres.

Zaire has pledged to close all 40 refugee camps in the mountainous east of the country, as the government is anxious about the strain being placed on the region's already limited resources by the presence of some one million refugees. The government is also worried that the presence of the Rwandan Hutus, many of whom are believed to be implicated in the 1994 genocide, could lead to further destabilisation in the area.

UN and Zairean officials have repeatedly said that any repatriation would be gradual and voluntary. However, there has been some tension in the camps since Zaire forcibly repatriated thousands of refugees last August before an international outcry forced it to stop.

UN agencies are also keen for the return home of the refugees as relief funds are fast drying up; donors have been reluctant to support a programme catering for people seen as perpetrators of genocide.