NYAMUTERA, Rwanda (AP) _ Hutu rebels drove 18-year-old Janvier Uwamahoro from his home two months ago and forced him to carry secret messages between rebel units across mountainous northwestern Rwanda.

On Monday, he accepted a meal offered by government soldiers, and left the rebels behind.

``If the rebels find me again, they will kill me. I hope the soldiers will protect me,'' Uwamahoro said, waiting in a line for a plate of rice and biscuits distributed by the soldiers. ``I had nothing to eat and was sick, so I decided to run away.''

Uwamahoro, a Hutu, was among more than 2,000 Hutu families who have left rebel bases hidden around mist-shrouded volcanoes in recent days. he said.

Their return is a sign that Hutu civilians are wearying of the rebel campaign and marks a small victory for the government, which has been battling rebels with mixed results since 1994.

``These days, we do more resettlements than fighting,'' said Col. Karenzi Karake, army commander for northern Rwanda. ``A combination of military and psychological pressure on the population over the months is giving results.''

Officials say up to 15,000 Hutus have fled rebel-controlled areas in the past month, a figure that could not be confirmed independently. The number of Hutus who remain with the rebels in the mountains northwest of the capital, Kigali, is not known.

Among those who returned Monday, few were willing to speak openly in the presence of nervous-looking soldiers. It was unclear whether they fled the rebels because they no longer supported their cause, or because they feared army attacks.

Most of the returnees were women and children. Men were either killed by the military during confrontations or were still with the rebels, said army officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed in rebel attacks and army reprisals in the simmering continuation of the 1994 war and Hutu government-orchestrated genocide of more than 500,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Tutsi rebels stopped the genocide when they seized power and Hutu extremists have since resorted to a guerilla war.

Uwamahoro, sick and weary, said he didn't believe the rebels would succeed in their fight to drive out the Tutsis, who make up only 14 percent of Rwanda's population.

The northwest is the hotbed of the Hutu rebellion. Ambushes and killings of Tutsis and Hutus allied to the government have intensified since the return in late 1996 of more than a million Hutu refugees from exile.