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Refugees say scores killed when rebels take over camp in Zaire

March 5, 1997

TINGI-TINGI, Zaire (AP) _ With rebels closing in on the last government stronghold in eastern Zaire, French officials said today that Zaire has accepted a U.N. cease-fire plan.

Refugees fleeing the rebel advance reported that scores of people were slain when rebels took over a huge refugee camp. One man said at least 100 refugees died.

Zairian Foreign Minister Gerard Kamanda wa Kamanda told French officials that ``Zaire’s president and the government are in full agreement with the five-point peace plan,″ French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jacques Rummelhardt told reporters in Paris.

Zairian officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

It would be the first official Zairian acceptance of the plan endorsed by Security Council last week. The plan calls for an immediate end to the fighting and the ousting of all mercenaries, reaffirms the territorial integrity of Zaire, says refugees must be protected and that an international conference must be held to resolve the conflict.

Since September, rebels wanting to overthrow President Mobutu Sese Seko’s government have captured a 900-mile swathe of territory in eastern Zaire. Rebel spokesman Nyembwe Kazadi said today that commanders told him their forces were 14 miles northeast of the government stronghold of Kisangani and could take the town ``within days.″

Over the weekend, rebel leader Laurent Kabila’s forces captured Tingi-Tingi, which once housed 170,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees. Tens of thousands of Rwandans fled the camp in the dead of night to avoid approaching rebels, the refugees said today.

The Hutus fled to Zaire to avoid retribution for the 1994 slaughter of a half-million minority Tutsis in Rwanda. The rebels claimed Zaire has armed the former Rwandan soldiers and militiamen, who are hiding among the women and children refugees.

Jonathan Ndirosonga, the rebels’ commander at the Tingi-Tingi camp, refused to discuss what happened during the takeover and barred journalists from entering it.

There was no smell of dead bodies outside the camp, however, and no refugees have talked of wholesale massacres.

Refugee Paul Rwasondo said the camp was empty when Kabila’s fighters arrived. The forces pursued the refugees four miles to the town of Lubutu, ``and there we were stopped.″

``Some were killed ... I cannot count the number. It was more than 100,″ Rwasondo said.

He described the refugees’ killers only as men in uniform. Kabila’s forces wear camouflage uniforms; the former Rwandan Hutu soldiers among the refugees wear no uniforms. Zaire’s army has retreated far from the camp.

``There was shooting, and we all ran,″ said one refugee, Innocent Saidi. ``Some people were killed, but I don’t know how many.″

Saidi was among hundreds of refugees who started heading east toward Rwanda, unlike tens of thousands of others who headed northwest toward Kisangani.

On Tuesday, the rebels reported taking Manono, a tin-and-coal mining town in the mineral-rich southeastern Shaba region, 560 miles south of Kisangani.

Rebel commander Jonathan Ndirosonga asked that the United Nations help repatriate all of the Rwandan Hutu refugees who had been living at Tingi-Tingi.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that a delay of several weeks might be too late for many of the Rwandan Hutus.

``We should do whatever we can to get assistance to the refugees who are caught in this cruel and compelling humanitarian situation,″ he said in Amsterdam.

Annan did not spell out how such assistance would be provided, but discussed the idea of an intervention force with Dutch officials.

International aid workers were evacuated from Kisangani on Saturday, fearing that demoralized Zairian troops would go on another looting spree. In response, Zaire ordered those 57 aid workers to leave the country by today, a decision U.N. officials were trying to get reversed.

Mobutu’s 31-year dictatorship has left resource-rich Zaire, Africa’s third largest nation, desperately poor.

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