Zaire accuses Rwanda of supporting rebels

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The Independent Online
Fighting continued last night around the east Zairean town of Bukavu as the government repeated claims of involvement by Rwanda's military. Mortar rounds and gunfire were again exchanged between the Zairean army (FAZ) and rebels from the Banyamulenge group, which is poised to take Bukavu, capital of South Kivu province.

Zaire says Rwanda's Tutsi-dominated regime is backing the rebels, ethnic Tutsis long settled in Zaire's eastern region. In the Zairean capital, Kinshasa, the authorities paraded 10 alleged Rwandan prisoners of war and the state media urged the army to hit Rwanda "hard". State television said the captured men had been trying to sabotage Bukavu airport. One of them said he was a Rwandan soldier, taken by surprise while on a military operation.

The Rwandan President, Pasteur Bizimungu, said: "We are not supporting the Banyamulenge military, we are not interested in the conquest of land but people's rights must be respected. The Banyamulenge are entitled to live in Zaire. Morally, I support their struggle between extermination and survival, I support their resistance against the Zairean authorities."

He denied his forces had shelled refugee camps in eastern Zaire, home to 1 million Rwandan Hutus who fled over the border after the 1994 Rwanda genocide in which at least 500,000 Tutsis died.

"We do not have the weaponry to shell the camps from our positions," Mr Bizimungu said in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. He said the Banyamulenge, who are claiming Zairean citizenship, inhabit an area originally belonging to the ancient kingdom of Rwanda.

Last week rebels from the Banyamulenge, 300,000 ethnic Tutsis whose origins in the region go back 200 years ago, moved close to Bukavu, taking towns in their path. They say they are fighting to prevent genocide of the Tutsi community in Zaire.

The FAZ has fled before the rebel advance along with 500,000 mostly Rwandan Hutu refugees. Two camps came under artillery attack at the weekend. The Zairean government and some aid agencies working in the area said the shelling came from the hills in Rwanda.

In North Kivu, the bodies of more than 14 men, women and children were found yesterday in a village near the Kibumba refugee camp, which was emptied of its Rwandan Hutu residents by an attack at the weekend. The attackers were, according to separate sources, Rwandan soldiers or Banyamulenge.

In Bujumbura yesterday Burundi's Tutsi-dominated army admitted killing 50 ethnic Hutu civilians in the southern province of Bururi and said the soldiers responsible would be punished. "On October 13 some indisciplined military killed civilians whom they accused of feeding the assailants [rebels] but there was no proof that they were feeding the rebels," an army spokesman said.

In Bukavu, Zairean troops and civilians have been looting and burning relief-agency warehouses as well as houses of aid workers who have been evacuated.

Reports trickling out of Bukavu paint a picture of mounting anarchy, with ill-disciplined FAZ soldiers terrorising Zairean civilians and the few foreigners left there.

The fleeing refugees, whose number includes Hutus who have fled ethnic unrest in Burundi, are trying to escape the fighting, which has spread like wildfire since the Banyamulenge launched their insurgency last month. At the weekend, 200,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees poured through the countryside after attacks on their camps in North Kivu province, adding to the refugees already on the move.

Some 10,000 Rwandan Hutus have crossed back into their country, despite their fears of revenge for the genocide of at least 500,000 Tutsis in Rwanda two and a half years ago. Many of those responsible for the massacres are among the refugees who sought sanctuary ineastern Zaire.

Though many of their residents are blameless men, women and children, the camps which have been emptied in the last few days are no ordinary refugee settlements. Using them as bases, well-equipped Hutu extremists have been launching raids into Rwanda, targeting survivors of the genocide. It is widely believed the Hutu rebel effort is being supported and facilitated by Zaire.

This situation is a source of acute embarrassment to the UN, which is managing the camps. It is also one of extreme irritation to the Rwandan government, which asks why the international community is putting more money into helping those responsible for the genocide than into rebuilding Rwanda.

Whether the camps have been emptied by Tutsi militias or by attacks from Rwanda itself, Rwanda must be pleased with the outcome: a disruption, albeit temporary, of the rebel threat over the border in Zaire. The danger is, though, that the escalation of the crisis during recent days will inflame the whole of the Great Lakes region and possibly much of central Africa.