Zairean rebels - backed by Rwanda's Tutsi-led government - are attacking Mugunga refugee camps, 10 kilometres outside Goma, the town taken by the rebels at the weekend.
Their principal opponent appears not to be Zairean troops but the Interahamwe, the militias which run the refugee camps set up for millions of Rwandan Hutus who fled their country after the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis in 1994. Fire was being returned from the camps.
In the settling of old Rwandan scores, refugees are being used as hostages by the Interahamwe . The war raging on the outskirts of Goma has cut Mugunga off and aid workers were evacuated across the border to Rwanda when Goma fell.
What is happening in Mugunga is invisible to the outside world - journalists cannot reach the area - but those fleeing the area report that the Interahamwe has surrounded the camp, now believed to be a centre for up to 500,000 refugees, many of whom have fled there from camps further north. More than 200,000 others are believed to be trapped by fighting in the region.
Sergio Vierra de Mello, the assistant high commissioner for the UNHCR , said earlier this week that once agreements had been reached with the Zairean and Rwandan governments and the rebels, no external military force would be needed for safe provision of aid for the refugees. The emergence of the Interahamwe as a force strong enough and sufficiently armed to make a stand against the rebels almost certainly removes that option if aid is to reach the refugees in time.
"A few days ago it looked as if the Interahamwe was not a specific threat but it now looks more likely that military intervention is needed," said a senior aid official. "Even if the rebels took the camp tomorrow there would be a continuing threat of Interahamwe ambushes and attacks." The French have offered to mount a military operation but it has been rejected by the Rwandan government because of past French support for the Rwandan Hutus.
Across the Zairean border in Gisenyi, Ray Wilkinson, spokesman for UNHCR yesterday repeated his warning that the international community must reach a decision about the crisis this week or watch hundreds of thousands die.
It would take a minimum of 14 days to launch a rescue. Even then hundreds if not thousands will have died of starvation, thirst and diseases like cholera. Children and the elderly will be the first victims. The UNHCR is ready to move with a plan which combines emergency food supplies with "safe corridors" through which refugees could return to Rwanda. So far that is what they have resolutely refused to do.
Aid workers and the UNHCR were aware that the Interahamwe have taken control of the camps and was storing arms. It was clear that the Hutu social structures had survived the mass exodus and that the old leaders were still in place.
The Interahamwe terrorised the refugees. When they were unconvinced by warnings that Tutsis would murder them if they went home they were lynched as a warning to others. The militias are almost certainly using the same methods to keep trapped refugees under control.
"When refugees try to leave to return to Rwanda they were threatened with guns and grenades," said Mr Wilkinson. Angry criticism that the UNHCR continued to feed the Interahamwe in the camps he said that the commission asked the UN Security Council in 1994 to send an international police force to rid the camps of the militias but the request was turned down.
Meanwhile conditions in Goma, the third major town in eastern Zaire to be taken by the rebels, are rapidly deteriorating. Food is running dangerously short. Everyday crowds of local people fight in the squalid streets for UN supplies once intended for the refugee camps.
Riots broke out yesterday when people raided UN supply stores and they were fired upon and beaten up by rebel soldiers.
The UN food supplies will also run out soon and when they do the rebels will face the problem of controlling a desperate local population, which looted for days after the taking of the town, while continuing to fight the Interahamwe.