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Wary refugees cling to camps

Rwandans' plight: UN repatriation offer shunned for fear of revenge attacks by Tutsis

Kibumba Camp, Zaire

Thousands of Rwandan refugees came out of hiding from Zairean troops and returned to their camps yesterday but only a few accepted a United Nations offer to escort them back to their homeland.

In Kibumba camp, adjacent to Rwanda's mountainous north-western border with Zaire, one refugee pointed to the nearby hills and said: "The Rwandan army is waiting for us. They will kill us if we go back."

At least 100,000 refugees had fled to the mountains near Uvira in the past few days to escape a forced expulsion operation mounted by Zairean troops.

About half emerged from hiding yesterday, the day after the operation was halted, and returned to their camps, spokesmen for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

But only about 200 refugees crossed the border during the first day of UN voluntary repatriation. In Kibumba camp, with 200,000 people the largest in the Goma region of eastern Zaire, only 100 Rwandans - mostly women and children - volunteered to go home.

Looking shaken, the refugees clutched straw mats, blankets and pots and pans. The convoy of seven half-empty trucks drove past impassive soldiers of the Rwandese Patriotic Army, the former rebels who swept to power last July after a genocide campaign and civil war.

"Everyone's waiting for everyone else to go. It's a slow start. People need security assurances," said Ivan Sturm, a UNHCR repatriation officer.

Zaire began forced expulsions on 19 August, saying it could no longer cope with 1 million Hutu refugees who have damaged the environment, driven up food and fuel prices and are blamed by local people for increased crime.

The expulsions, in breach of international treaties, were halted on Thursday and the UNHCR agreed to repatriate the refugees willing to go home.

The UNHCR's Agatashya radio station is telling refugees it is safe to go back. But after more than a year in camps partly controlled by Hutu hardliners, the people fear the Tutsis will wreak revenge if they return.

Refugees said extremists in camps claimed that returnees would be choked to death in containers in prison.