UN turns screws on rebel chief of Zaire

Refugee crisis: As pressure mounts on Kabila to aid displaced Hutus, troops fly out in case foreigners need to be evacuated

The United Nations yesterday turned up the pressure on the leader of the rebel movement in Zaire, Laurent Kabila, to co-operate in repatriating tens of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees believed lost in the east of the country in conditions of exhaustion and deprivation.

The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, issued a statement welcoming a commitment made by Mr Kabila during talks with aid officials over the weekend to support the repatriation.

In an attempt to place public responsibility on the rebel leader, Mr Annan said: "The entire international community are counting on that support."

The statement followed declarations from Mr Kabila at the weekend in which he gave aid agencies 60 days to complete the repatriation effort. Mr Kabila demanded an apology from Mr Annan for earlier accusing the rebels of waging a campaign of "slow extermination" against the refugees.

Sadako Ogata, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, also spoke out yesterday after briefing the Security Council. She said she had written to Mr Kabila asking for his assurance that reports indicating the involvement of his soldiers in attacks on refugees were unfounded. She said the 60-day deadline for the repatriation campaign was "unrealistic".

Mixed news continued to emanate from the region. On the diplomatic front, the United States ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, arrived in Zaire on a mission to arrange face-to-face peace talks between Mr Kabila and President Mobutu Sese Seko.

Unicef reported that up to 50 Hutu children had been abducted from a pediatric hospital run by the British aid agency Save the Children, near the Zaire-Rwanda border. Who took the children was unclear. Elsewhere, aid workers celebrated locating between 5,000 and 10,000 refugees, previously thought lost or dead, on a road leading south from the city of Kisangani.

It was the abrupt disappearance last week of an estimated 85,000 Rwandan Hutus from two refugee camps outside Kisangani that prompted Mr Annan to ring the alarm bells about a potential humanitarian disaster. The implication of his statement was that forces loyal to Mr Kabila may have abetted the tragedy and even murdered some of the refugees.

UN sources said the UNHCR had evidence of massacres having taken place. Officials are not convinced Mr Kabila was aware of these events. Privately, they question the role in the crisis of Paul Kagame, the defence minister of Rwanda. Considered the strongman of the Tutsi regime in Rwanda, Mr Kagame has no interest in seeing Hutu refugees brought home.

The sounding of that alarm has critically altered the perception around the world of Mr Kabila, whose forces now control over half of Zaire. The fact that international opinion may be swinging against him will not be lost on the leader.

The Washington Post yesterday labelled Mr Kabila the "Spoiler in Zaire". In an editorial, it said: "By a cruel refugee policy, Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader in Zaire, is spoiling much of the friendly reception he might otherwise hope to reap in his country and abroad for ousting Mobutu."

Mr Annan's statement yesterday was designed to force Mr Kabila to deliver on his promise made at the weekend to help aid agencies carry out the repatriation. In private, UN officials are sceptical of Mr Kabila's word, in part because of a belief that Mr Kabila has limited control over eastern Zaire and even over his own soldiers.

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