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U.N. says it’s ready to repatriate refugees, U.S. envoy meets with Mobutu

April 29, 1997

BIARO, Zaire (AP) _ The United Nations says it’s ready to start flying about 80,000 Rwandan refugees home immediately, a day after a line of people traumatized by attacks by Zairian mobs streamed out of the jungles and back to the squalid camps.

Meanwhile in Kinshasa, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was meeting today with President Mobutu Sese Seko in talks believed to be an attempt to arrange the longtime Zaire leader’s exit from power.

The U.S. ambassador, Bill Richardson, arrived in Zaire’s capital Monday night. After the talks with Mobutu, he is to travel to Lubumbashi on Wednesday to meet with rebel leader Laurent Kabila.

The Washington Post reported today that President Clinton dispatched Richardson to tell Mobutu it was time to step down after 32 years in power and that the United States would help arrange a dignified departure.

The newspaper quoted unidentified diplomatic sources as saying Richardson was told to suggest Mobutu use his prostate cancer as an excuse for quitting.

South Africa, a mediator in Zaire’s war, has offered a naval ship as the venue for peace talks expected this week between Mobutu and Kabila, a well-placed South African government source confirmed today.

The ship would be stationed off Zaire and Angola, according to the Johannesburg newspaper Business Day.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed the report but said both countries had not yet agreed to meet on the ship.

In Zaire, the Rwandan refugees were ready to leave for home.

``If I could go only today,″ Sosthene Ntirampaga said Monday at a camp near Biaro, south of the regional capital of Kisangani.

The refugees looked frightened, hungry and ill after seven months of fleeing one rebel battle after another in a war that is not their own. Some said they came out of the jungle because they heard the U.N. refugee flights had started.

``Look at their faces _ they speak more than words,″ Filippo Grandi of the U.N. refugee agency said. He said an airlift is the only way to prevent further misery.

Grandi said the repatriation could start immediately.

U.N. aid workers said they planned to send trucks and a train today to Biaro, about 25 miles south of Kisangani, to deliver food and medicine and transport the first groups of refugees. But details were still being discussed.

Aid workers said 5,000-10,000 Rwandans had emerged from the jungle.

Until Monday, international officials had accounted for only a few hundred of the 80,000 refugees missing from camps near Kisangani. In all, the United Nations estimates 250,000 Rwandans are missing in Zaire.

The camps were found deserted last week, five days after rebels sealed off the area to foreign aid workers and journalists. Refugees claimed they fled after Zairian mobs slaughtered hundreds of them and Zairian rebel troops opened fire on at least one camp from a passing train.

The scene at Biaro seemed to lend credence to their stories.

In a makeshift hospital tent, a woman lay barely alive with a machete wound to her head. Behind the hospital lay a dozen bodies, mostly women and children, some with machete wounds.

A lone doctor tried to care for scores of wounded and sick people pouring into the camp.

``I came from the forest half an hour ago,″ Ntirampaga said after a week of hiding in the jungle. ``First the Zairians attacked us. They looted food, medicines, everything. ... Then we heard the gunshots and fled.″

Kabila told international officials on Sunday that his troops hadn’t harmed refugees. But U.N. officials said rebels stormed a pediatric hospital Saturday in Lwiro, 280 miles further east, dragging away 50 Rwandan refugee children and beating up hospital workers.

``These were children, not even teen-agers. They had nothing to do with the fighting or the (1994) genocide in Rwanda,″ said Roger Botralahy, who runs the UNICEF office in Bukavu, 20 miles south of the hospital.

The rebels have been blocking a planned U.N. refugee airlift to Rwanda, saying, among other objections, that flights would interfere with troop movements. Forty refugees were flown back home Sunday.

But in talks with U.N. and European Union officials, Kabila abruptly gave the United Nations two months to evacuate the refugees. It was not clear what would happen after the 60 days are up.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns criticized the deadline: ``To issue an ultimatum now, particularly when the refugees are scattered, is most unhelpful.″

The refugees are among the more than 1 million Hutus who fled Rwanda in 1994, fearing reprisals for the country’s state-orchestrated genocide that killed at least 500,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Kabila’s forces have overrun more than half of Zaire in their battle to topple Mobutu.

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