Associated Press

April 5, 1997

Zaire Refugees Stranded in Jungle

GOMA, Zaire (AP) -- The United States and United Nations accuse rebels of obstructing the return of Hutu refugees to Rwanda. The rebels deny it. And while they argue, tens of thousands of stranded people sit and wait in the jungles of Zaire.

At least 120 Hutu refugees are dying every day in two camps sheltering 80,000 people south of the rebel-held city of Kisangani, said Pam O'Toole, spokeswoman in Geneva for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The crisis prompted the U.N. Security Council Friday night to call on the rebels to grant aid workers immediate and free access to the refugees.

``Everywhere you see walking cadavers,'' said a report by the UNHCR's medical coordinator, Dr. Zohra Labdi, and read by O'Toole.

The agency is trying to negotiate with the rebels for permission to airlift out sick and elderly refugees on planes that bring food to Kisangani, O'Toole said.

``Planes bringing relief supplies to Kisangani are returning empty, and we need to make use of them,'' she said. ``We could easily bring out 150 refuges on our outbound flights if we are allowed to do so.''

But aid workers familiar with the flights say insurance policies on the aircraft only permit them to carry three passengers on return trips.

The rebels, fighting to oust dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, have captured the eastern third of Zaire. They want to be rid of the Rwandan refugees, who were driven into the interior from camps at the eastern border by extremist Hutus fighting the rebels.

But the rebels, who have cooperated in earlier U.N. repatriations of Rwandans, will not allow these refugees into Kisangani -- even to get to the airport to be taken home. They want the Rwandans to turn around and go back to Rwanda over land, a journey of at least 300 miles on sometimes impassible roads.

Friday night, the Security Council meeting in New York urged the insurgents to allow humanitarian workers free access to the Rwandan refugees.

Diplomatic sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the statement was issued at the insistence of Portugal and Sweden, which believed the council needed to take a public stand on the refugee issue.

``The Security Council underlines the obligation of all concerned to respect the relevant provisions of international humanitarian law,'' the 15-member council said.

It called on the rebels to allow ``unrestricted and safe access'' to the Rwandan refugees and Zairian civilians displaced by the fighting.

The council also urged the rebels to ``cooperate fully with the United Nations in implementation'' of a plan to airlift the weakest of the refugees from the eastern city of Kisangani.

U.S. State Department spokesman Nick Burns said Thursday that if rebel leader Laurent Kabila wants to be taken seriously by the international community, ``he needs to act in a civilized way.''

On Friday, Burns said that the rebels had given the Red Cross permission to airlift to Zairians to safety. He said Kabila agreed to let the organization airlift thousands of internally displaced Zairians from Kisangani to Goma.

``The operation is expected to begin shortly,'' said Burns, who didn't provide specifics on exactly how many Zairians may be involved.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said the U.N. refugee agency made a request in writing to Kabila on March 29, asking permission to fly the sickest of the Rwandan refugees -- as many as 30,000 people -- home from Kisangani. No reply had been received, Eckhard said.

The Security Council's action Friday night followed a similar call earlier in the day by council President Antonio Monteiro of Portugal. He said the refugees ``need help, and they need it now.''

At the Goma headquarters of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, a rebel official rejected U.S. and U.N criticism.

``The alliance has already given all the authority and all the permissions for humanitarian agencies to go and save the refugees,'' said Gaetan Kakudji said Friday. ``We don't understand why, after giving all the authorization, they continue accusing us of creating a problem.''

Despite his statement, however, the United Nations says it still not received permission to land at the airport. The rebels could fear that refugees coming to the city, even to be airlifted out, would become entrenched in the region.

A Western diplomatic source familiar with the negotiations said Friday that most of the trucks needed for the evacuation are in Rwanda and have not been released by the government for use in Zaire. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Hutu refugees had been among more than a million settled in camps on the Zairian side of the border in 1994. They had fled their homeland in fear of retribution for the Hutu-led massacre of half a million minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

In November, Rwanda told its exiled Hutus to come home, saying they should not be afraid of the Tutsi-led government. More than 600,000 walked from camps in eastern Zaire all the way to their home communes.