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U.N.: Zaire fighting may have scattered tens of thousands of Rwandans

April 23, 1997

KISANGANI, Zaire (AP) _ New fighting between rebels and former Rwandan soldiers in eastern Zaire may have forced at least 60,000 Rwandan refugees to flee squalid jungle camps, a U.N. spokesman said today.

Rebels barred aid workers for a third day from entering the camps south of Kisangani on the Zaire River’s west bank to help the refugees or even learn what was happening to them, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said.

``There are unconfirmed reports that the Kasese camps are empty,″ said UNHCR spokesman Paul Stromberg. ``It’s going to make everything we’re trying to do more complicated. There’s a danger the diseases will spread, and getting food to them will be difficult.″

The rebels say their forces and former Rwandan Hutu soldiers started fighting after Zairian residents near the camps went on a rampage Monday, blaming the refugees for the killing of six local people. The mobs looted food supplies and attacked aid workers and journalists.

The rebels _ many of them ethnic Tutsis from eastern Zaire _ have been fighting a seven-month insurgency against Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko. But they also have periodically fought exiled Rwandan Hutu soldiers and militiamen who have used the refugee camps as cover. Innocent refugees are caught in the middle of the conflict, which has its roots in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

The Hutus in central Zaire are among more than 1 million Rwandans who fled their country in mid-1994 after the then-Hutu government organized the slaughter of at least a half-million Tutsis.

Stromberg said about 60,000 refugees from Kasese, 15 miles south of Kisangani, likely fled south during this week’s fighting.

Another 40,000 refugees are camped along a narrow road in the area and have been dying of starvation and disease at a rate of 60 a day.

More than a month ago, they stopped their collective flight west and told aid workers they wanted to go home.

But the rebels, who had captured Kisangani on March 15, refused them entry into the city. Aid workers, who had hoped to use the city’s airports to fly the 100,000 refugees home, have put repatriation plans on hold.

Filippo Grandi, a UNHCR representative, met with rebel and Rwandan officials today, trying to get permission to visit, or at least fly over, the camps.

Rebel representative Emmanuel Kamanzi refused. He said rebel forces fought outside Kasese on Tuesday, but that he had no information about the situation there today.

The rebels have pledged their support for what would be the biggest refugee air evacuation in Africa.

But they fear the refugees would bring instability and cholera to Kisangani during the two or three months it would take to fly them out, and have repeatedly delayed the start of the airlift.

The rebels say they want the refugees returned by truck along the 375-mile road to Bukavu, on the border with Rwanda. But much of the road is a muddy track that would require millions of dollars and several months to repair.

They also proposed today that UNHCR use the airport at Ubundu, 60 miles south of Kisangani, for the airlift. The compact, dirt airstrip could be modified for the operation, U.N. officials said.