UN warns of looming disaster in Zaire

Refugee crisis: `This could very soon become a catastrophe' 8 World opinion is outraged but in Zaire they are overjoyed

of Agence France Presse

Gisenyi, Rwanda - Hutu refugees expelled by Zaire continued to cross the border into Rwanda yesterday, as UN officials expressed alarm about the fate of more than 130,000 who fled into Zaire's forested hills.

"We're extremely concerned. This could very soon become a catastrophe," Peter Kessler, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Nairobi, warned.

About 100,000 people had fled the camps in the Uvira region, while another 13,000 fled the area of Bukavu and around 20,000 were on the move from Goma to avoid having to return home to Rwanda and Burundi, he added. Most are said to be from the defeated Hutu army and Interahamwe militias involved in last year's massacres that claimed the lives of more than half a million people in Rwanda, most of them Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Officials in Bukavu said some refugees left the camp with arms.

Other refugees, numbering 770 according to the UNHCR, continued to cross the border many arriving in the Rwandan town of Gisenyi opposite the sprawling camps centred on the Zairean town of Goma. The numbers crossing the border were well down on the first four days of the operation to expel refugees camped in Zaire for over a year.

Contrary to the sullen demeanour of the first refugees, the majority appeared cheerful and said they were looking forward to going home after spending a year in the squalid refugee camps. "I'm glad to be back," said one woman. "I hope no one has moved into our house and taken over our farm, but if they have I expect the government to look after us."

Refugees arriving in Rwanda were loaded on to white UN trucks, to be driven to a transit centre 12 miles away. "We are not afraid," said the occupants of one truck despite the general fear of retribution in Rwanda, where 50,000 Hutus accused of genocide are in prison.

The international community has expressed alarm at the forced repatriation of the Rwandans and the German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, said in Bonn yesterday: "The people in the area really have experienced enough grief. A forced repatriation, for whatever reasons and from whichever side, only increases the existing tensions in the region," said Mr Kinkel, who visited the region last month.

At Goma's Mugunga refugee camp, home to about about 50,000 children, aid workers Wednesday evacuated 500 abandoned children to a more secure area in the town, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said in Geneva.

In Nairobi, Mr Kessler said the UNHCR was prepared to restart its operations of "voluntary" repatriation from the Zaire camps as long as the Zairean military stopped pressuring refugees into leaving.

Washington has expressed concern that the instability would spill over into the rest of the region."This action violates international humanitarian principles and can precipitate a human disaster," State Department spokesman, David Johnson said.