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Tens of Thousands Flee in Terror After 2,000 Killed in Rwandan Camp

April 23, 1995

GIKONGORO, Rwanda (AP) _ Tens of thousands of people, most wounded or sick, fled along muddy roads Sunday from the refugee camp where at least 2,000 people were killed by Rwandan soldiers or trampled in stampedes a day earlier.

Soldiers buried the bodies in shallow graves and pit latrines at the Kibeho camp, about 12 miles south of Gikongoro and 55 miles southwest of the capital, Kigali. Hillsides that had been strewn with corpses were cleared by the end of the day, aid workers said.

A 10-mile line of panicked refugees streamed out of Kibeho toward the provincial capital of Butare, 20 miles east, or the border with Burundi, which lies beyond.

Most were sick or wounded, according to a team from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees that visited the camp. A U.N. relief agency set up medical treatment centers along the way.

``They have thrown away all of their belongings, sacks of maize, plastic sheeting, personal effects,″ the team said in a report. ``The road was piled high with these abandoned goods.″

Rain turned the road into a nearly impassable quagmire. Trucks and buses sent to help evacuate the refugees were stuck 10 miles away.

Rain also apparently touched off Saturday’s massacre.

Most of the refugees are ethnic Hutus who fear Tutsi reprisals for the slayings of about 500,000 people _ mostly Tutsis _ that occurred a year ago. The refugees fled last July when Tutsi-led rebels overthrew the Hutu-dominated government.

Kibeho, with about 120,000 refugees, was the largest of the camps initially set up by the French in the area for some 250,000 displaced people.

The French withdrew last year and the new government sent soldiers to begin closing camps on Tuesday, claiming they sheltered militias loyal to the former government.

On Saturday, camp residents, apparently seeking cover from the rain, tried to run through a cordon of soldiers surrounding it.

``This spooked the soldiers, and they started firing into the crowd,″ said Ray Wilkinson, UNHCR spokesman in Nairobi, Kenya.

When Hutu militiamen in the camp apparently returned fire, the soldiers responded with heavy mortars, the United Nations said. Other U.N. reports said people were killed by machetes, bayonets and rocket-propelled grenades.

``As confusion then became total chaos and panic, a large number of people, mostly women and children, were trampled to death,″ Wilkinson said.

A Doctors Without Borders worker who was in the camp Saturday, Etienne Quetin, said refugees may have attacked each other with machetes, but much of the killing was done by soldiers from the Rwandan Patriotic Army.

``What we did see with our own eyes was that the RPA was shooting into the backs of people who were fleeing,″ he said Sunday in Gikongoro. ``That was old people, women. We also saw many shooting into the crowd.″

Francois Musoni, 25, lay in a hospital tent in Gikongoro, an intravenous drip in his arm and a bullet wound in his right foot. He claimed the soldiers were not provoked.

``The RPA came and told us that we had to go home,″ he said. ``And we looked up and saw soldiers surrounding us on a hill and they fired.″

So many corpses were strewn about the camp after the shooting that a Doctors Without Borders team could not drive out, Quetin said. ``We had to go walking over the bodies.″

However, aid workers said Sunday the bodies had been all but cleared.

The United Nations initially put the casualty toll at 5,000 dead and 2,000 wounded.

But Sunday night, Lt. Kent Page, the U.N. military spokesman in Kigali, sharply revised his estimate downward to about 2,000 killed, with an estimated 600 more injured.

Asked why some aid agencies were putting the toll as high as 8,000, Page said they may have assumed that, since there were reports of 3,000 or 4,000 dead in one part of the camp, ``there had to be twice as many in the whole camp. But that proved not to be true.″

U.N. and aid workers reported more gunfire at the camp Sunday, but details were sketchy.

``It’s clear that there have been new casualties,″ said Christophe Wiser, a Red Cross spokesman in Geneva. ``I think there were some more deaths but it will be difficult to know how many.″

Many refugees, afraid to return home, have resisted the evictions for fearing of being killed once back home.

U.N. spokesman Barney Mayhew in Kigali said some refugees were being killed, although he said the number ``is probably substantially small.

``It means the arrival is not popular with the people where they are going,″ he said. ``It also means we have a long way to go before we can return to stability.″

Tens of thousands of refugees camped in the soccer stadium in Butare on Sunday or at a U.N. post in the city, said Wilkinson, the UNHCR spokesman.

Rwandan authorities want them to return to their homes, and the U.N. refugee agency worried the refugees might head for the closed border with Burundi and be turned back. Wilkinson said his agency was protesting Burundi’s decision to close the border.

Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu, speaking on Belgian radio, promised there would be sanctions if an investigation shows the soldiers planned the attack.

The army sealed Kibeho after the chaos, but Wilkinson said about 2,000 young children, orphaned or separated from their parents, remained inside the camp under U.N. care.

Most of them had not eaten in five days, and doctors are few.

The UNHCR office said Kibeho would be empty by Sunday evening. Three other camps near Kibeho that held a total of 60,000 people were closed peacefully on Saturday, Wilkinson said.

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