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Hutu Fighters Attack Rwandan Prison

December 5, 1997

BULINGA, Rwanda (AP) _ Six weary soldiers sat around a gutted, empty jail as its ruined buildings still smoldered in the morning mist, frustrated that they had been unable to repel a rebel attack.

Hundreds of Hutu fighters had emerged from the thick forest Wednesday, overwhelming the Tutsi soldiers in a one-hour rampage in western Rwanda. The attack allowed more than 500 Hutu prisoners to escape, many of whom were suspected of genocide.

On Thursday, three bullet-riddled bodies lay in the grass behind the municipal building, apparent Hutu rebels shot by the soldiers, who now waited impatiently for the fog to lift in order to give chase.

``We didn’t expect this attack. It was so quick, and there were so many of them,″ said Straton Butera, mayor of this small town 30 miles west of the capital, Kigali.

The rebel raid, following one that freed 103 inmates Tuesday from a jail to the northwest, seem to point to trouble brewing in Rwanda.

The Tutsi-led government has not been able to stem the violence that has accompanied the return of Hutu fighters, men who had fled Rwanda fearing reprisals for the 1994 genocide of a half-million minority Tutsis.

With Rwanda’s crumpled justice system overwhelmed by cases against genocide suspects, prisons are crowded with an estimated 120,000 people.

How many of the newly freed prisoners will join the rebels is unknown.

The raids have been well organized. On Wednesday, the rebels swarmed out of the forest that lines both sides of the main road, advancing on the prison from four corners to prevent anyone from running for help, Butera said. They burned down the mayor’s office and hacked to death six Tutsis.

They searched for Butera, but he escaped death by hiding under his bed.

Others were not so lucky. The attackers grabbed Decoles Ngarambe and his wife, both Tutsis who survived the 1994 slaughter organized by the then-Hutu government.

Ngarambe was forced to watch as the raiders hacked his wife to death with machetes before they turned on him, according to his family.

He survived and was hospitalized in Gitarama, 12 miles south. But he wasn’t able to attend his wife’s funeral, held Thursday behind their house tucked in a banana grove.

``They told us they will come again, and finish the job with the rest of us,″ said one of his relatives who was too afraid to give his name.

The message the rebels delivered seemed clear: We are here, and we are getting even closer.

``They wanted to show that they have power to do whatever they want,″ Butera said. ``It wasn’t an attack on a prison only, it was an attack on a town.″

Hutus make up 85 percent of Rwanda’s 7 million people; Tutsis are only 14 percent.

Late last year, nearly 2 million Hutu refugees returned from exile in neighboring countries. Authorities say former Hutu militiamen and soldiers responsible for the 1994 genocide mixed in with returning civilians.

No one on the government side knows the real strength of the rebel force, nor its objectives. There is no recognized rebel organization and no rebel spokesman.

The rebels use civilian settlements as hiding places where they stock up on food and then lay down in forests to ambush army patrols.

Hutu civilians are trapped between the two forces, a Tutsi army trying to root out the enemy and Hutu rebels who punish those refusing to give aid. Tutsis, on the other hand, are always the first to die when rebels strike.

The human rights organization Amnesty International estimates 6,000 people have been killed by the two sides this year.

Despite the rebels’ audacious attacks, Butera remains confident in the undeclared war.

``I’m not afraid. We will deal with them,″ he said, recalling a traditional saying. ``When crows conspire to steal food from farmers, the farmers conspire, too, to stop the birds.″

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