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Tanzanian military tries to drive Rwandan refugees home

December 14, 1996

BENACO, Tanzania (AP) _ Tanzania’s military began a major operation today to return hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees home. The refugees trudged out of the forests and back toward their camps _ but it was unclear whether they were heading home after 2 1/2 years in exile.

More than 10,000 soldiers fanned out today to round up 535,000 Rwandan refugees, most of whom fled deeper into Tanzania from camps on the Rwandan border on Thursday.

The refugees reversed their direction on Friday, heading back toward the camps, and the Tanzanian troops set up roadblocks to make sure they kept going _ not only back to the camps, but on to the Rwandan border.

The soldiers said they were not using force.

``We just want to help these poor people go home,″ said Gen. Msuya, the military commander of the operation who would not give his first name. ``We’re not shooting anyone.″

The army stopped reporters at a checkpoint near Benaco, 15 miles southeast of the Rusumo border crossing. The last refugees were passing the checkpoint today.

The Tanzanian military operation was designed to ensure that they went not only back to their camps, but continued on to Rwanda. But there were conflicting reports about whether they were crossing the border.

A worker from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said radio communications from Red Cross stations set up along the roads near the border indicated that refugees were moving in large numbers back toward their homeland.

But two other officials from the same organization said that wasn’t true.

``They’re in the camps. They’re settling down. Everything is calm,″ said worker Abbas Gullet. But he said he knew of no refugees on the road back into Rwanda, although he said he expected the refugees to begin heading home in large numbers later today.

Gullet said there was a heavy Tanzanian military presence outside the camps to prevent refugees from leaving and heading away from the border, but that the military had not moved into the camps themselves.

The military ordered all aid groups and U.N. workers to remain in their compounds today. But it exempted the Red Cross and Oxfam, both of which set up way stations on the roads between the camps and the border.

Anne Willem Bijleveld, a representative for the U.N. refugee agency, said ``the relationship is tense″ between aid groups and the military. ``They have definitely taken over,″ he said of the military.

But he confirmed that the army was not using force against the refugees, and said the operation appeared to be driving the refugees back _ something the U.N. agency wants to see happen.

``We strongly believe the momentum is now in the direction of Rwanda,″ he said. ``This should be over fairly quickly.″

He added that Red Cross stations were set up on the Rwandan side of the border, ready to provide food and medical attention to the refugees once they cross back into Rwanda.

When the refugees fled deeper into Tanzania on Thursday, aid workers said they were being herded by armed Hutu militants, who fear retribution for the 1994 slaughter of 500,000 minority Tutsis in Rwanda if they go home.

More than a million Hutus fled Rwanda in 1994, scattering into nations that surround the tiny country _ including Zaire, to the west, and Tanzania, to the east.

Another 640,000 Rwandan refugees returned home from Zaire last month when attacks by Zairian rebels freed them from the control of Hutu militants, who controlled the refugee camps through intimidation.

The Tanzanian government last week ordered all refugees to return to Rwanda by the end of the month, prompting the Hutu militants to organize the exodus into the forests.

CARE International spokesman Mark Richardson said the refugees in Tanzania repeat horror stories they’ve been told by Hutu intimidators to prevent them from going home: ``Babies will be taken from their mothers, Hutus will be thrown into the river, their hands and feet will be cut off.″

Many of the refugees heading back today said they still didn’t want to go home.

``We can’t go to Rwanda. That would be a catastrophe,″ said a refugee who gave his name only as Jean. ``They talk always of genocide in Rwanda. The Tutsis will kill us.″

But the Tanzanian military was determined to make sure the refugees returned anyway.

``The soldiers stopped us,″ said Francois Lukera, balancing a bundle of clothes on his head. ``We didn’t want to come back, but they scared us.″

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