Western troops ease into their mercy mission

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KIGALI - Western troops were surveying the Rwanda countryside yesterday as thousands of refugees trekked home. British officers said a medical unit had driven to the north-western border town of Gisenyi, where thousands of refugees have been returning from the camps in Zaire.

In Kigali, huge US military vehicles rumbled about the hilly roads as technicians assessed war damage to the capital's electricity and water systems while two massive US Sea Stallion helicopters could be seen scouting out the land, flying low over hills carpeted with banana planations and dotted with mostly empty villages.

With life returning slowly to the streets of Kigali, the United Nations played down fears of an offensive by defeated troops of the former hardline Hutu government from their refuge in neighbouring Zaire. The UN military commander, Major-General Romeo Dallaire, said, however, that he could not rule out hit-and-run attacks in some parts of the country where there is no shortage of small-arms, grenades and land mines. Mine blasts have wounded dozens of people as they return home through old battlefields.

Soldiers of the victorious Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) patrolling the capital maintain low-key security, but in one incident an armed civilian was killed and an RPF soldier wounded in a shoot-out on Wednesday. 'The man was carrying a gun. It seems he attacked the RPF guy first, wounded him and then got shot himself,' said a UN military officer, who asked not to be named.

The RPF, which is dominated by the minority Tutsi tribe, took power in Kigali last month, marking a victorious climax to its invasion from Uganda in 1990, when it set out to bring home thousands of Tutsis who fled decades of massacres.

Fears are also mounting that cholera and other diseases could spread in Kigali as people bring infections back from camps in Zaire, where 24,000 have died in the past three weeks.

In a drawn-out deployment, US forces in Kigali, who began arriving on Monday, now number 174. They seem to be concentrating on establishing a base and getting the airport into working order before turning to the humanitarian mission they have been assigned.

British forces, which will be brought up to a strength of 600, now number 78. About a third of the 600-strong Canadian contingent have arrived and 300 Australians are expected later this month.

GOMA - A group of Rwandan refugees killed a Zairean soldier accused of demanding bribes, slashing him to death with machetes at the entrance to their camp.

The UNHCR spokesman said the soldier was killed at Katale camp near the Rwandan border in Zaire after the driver of a truck with Rwandan plates was stopped at an army checkpoint.