'Virtual state of war' in Rwandan refugee camps

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GOMA (Reuter) - International relief agencies said yesterday that security in teeming Rwandan refugee camps round the eastern Zairean town of Goma was now worse than anything they had previously experienced.

'We are in a virtual state of war in the big refugee camps,' said Ray Wilkinson, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He cited more than half-a-dozen incidents in which grenades had been thrown, and refugees had been shot and hacked to death in the past two days.

An estimated 800,000 people are living in the Goma camps, the vast bulk of the million-plus Rwandans who fled across the border last month as the Hutu government and its army fled ahead of the advancing Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF).

Mr Wilkinson told a news conference that experienced aid workers found the degree of danger to themselves and those they were trying to help more serious than anything they had experienced in countries like Afghanistan or Cambodia. 'There is always a degree of danger in places like Cambodia or Afghanistan - but here we have found, and I am speaking of experienced aid workers, that we are going beyond that degree,' he added.

In recent days, the French Red Cross suspended all its relief operations following death threats to its staff. The agency also postponed further aid flights into Goma.

After a night of sporadic gunfire on Wednesday, Mr Wilkinson said it was now a question of time before international relief workers themselves would be targeted or become the victims.

Five looters caught stealing food were hacked to death on Tuesday by refugees wielding machetes in the camp of Katale, where 300,000 people are living. Originally thought to be Zaireans, they were later discovered to be Hutu militiamen who had been stealing from their own people.

On Wednesday, another UNHCR spokesman, warning that security was crumbling, said militiamen attacked Rwandan game scouts about to return to a gorilla park straddling the border with Zaire, forcing the UN to abandon an operation to take them back.

'This is one of a number of incidents illustrating that the security situation in the camps is deteriorating,' a spokesman, Kris Janowski, said.

With the RPF promising to respect the refugees' rights, aid officials are anxious to encourage the refugees to return home. But they are meeting often violent resistance from Hutu militiamen and members of Rwanda's ousted Hutu government who are determined that the RPF, which set up a new broad-based government, will be left with only an empty wasteland to rule.

UNHCR staff have had rocks thrown at them and have warned that food riots could be imminent.

Mr Janowski said on Wednesday: 'The security situation has worsened considerably and we are very concerned about the safety of our staff. The situation is almost out of control.'

The UN released figures yesterday indicating that many Hutus have opted to stay in the UN-monitored 'safe zone' despite fears of reprisal killings under the country's new government. Mr Janowski said that fewer than 3,000 Hutus were now waiting on the Rwandan side of the Ruzizi river to be trucked to camps on the Zairean side by the UNHCR. The figure is a far cry from an earlier estimate of 25,000.