Geneva - Zaire yesterday set a deadline of 31 December for the expulsion of 1.2 million Rwandan refugees from camps in the east of the country. Monthly quotas would be laid down to ensure the repatriations were not delayed.
"The repatriations have not been suspended nor have they been interrupted," said Zaire's Prime Minister, Leon Kengo wa Dondo.
His government had entrusted the task to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) but would resume forced repatriations once the deadline expired. The agency, however, rejected any set time-scale. "The UNHCR is fully committed to mobilisation of the resources and support necessary for the repatriations to take place, but it cannot commit itself to any rigid time-frame," said a spokesman, Ron Redmond.
Zaire's announcement was made after talks between Mr Kengo and the High Commissioner, Sadako Ogata in Geneva. Ms Ogata is to fly to the area today for discussions with other leaders from Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire. Key concerns are violence in the camps, the activities of Hutu extremists among the refugees, and how best to persuade the refugees to return to Rwanda.
Forced repatriation by the Zairean government earlier this month caused an estimated 173,000 people to flee into hills and forests around the camps and raised fears of another humanitarian disaster. Zaire stopped its expulsions late last week after the UNHCR agreed to resume its voluntary repatriation programme. Since then, however, only about 400 people have agreed to return.
Explosions in the area of the camps, believed to be the work of Hutu extremists, have prompted the UNHCR to order some aid workers to leave. A landmine exploded outside the offices of the Care aid agency on Monday, injuring a Zairean driver and a passenger in a UNHCR truck. A second explosion occurred in a Goma market. Dutch and Belgian physicians from the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres also said they were leaving camps in Zaire and Tanzania in protest at the control Hutus suspected of war crimes exert over the people there.
Many officials of the former Hutu government, accused of involvement in the massacres of 500,000 people - mostly Tutsis - in Rwanda last year, fled to the refugee camps in neighbouring countries. They are believed to be regrouping to attack the new government and are blamed for rumours of Tutsi retaliation against any Hutu refugees returning to Rwanda.
Mr Redmond said that the UNHCR was trying to counter the misinformation put out by the extremists with its own information campaign. "It is an extremely difficult process because they have a very, very effective network."