Associated Press

April 27, 1997

Kabila Gives U.N. Evacuation Order

KISANGANI, Zaire (AP) -- Zaire's rebel leader ordered up to 100,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees out of Zaire on Sunday, giving the United Nations two months to track them down and send them home.

Laurent Kabila promised that international officials would have full access to search for the tens of thousands of refugees, whose fate is still unknown after they dispersed into the jungle when their camps allegedly came under attack last week.

A few hundred refugees have been found. Some of these refugees said Zairian villagers attacked the camps with machetes, killing hundreds, and say Kabila's forces opened fire on at least one camp.

Authorities evacuated the first 40 of the refugees on Sunday, flying them directly from Kisangani to the Rwandan capital of Kigali, according to representatives of the U.N. refugee agency.

Kabila's fighters previously had blocked a planned U.N. airlift of the starving, disease-ridden refugees, saying in part that the refugee flights would interfere with his troops' movements.

But in talks with U.N. officials Sunday in Kisangani, Kabila abruptly gave the United Nations two months to collect and evacuate the refugees, Filippo Grandi of the U.N. refugee agency said. Kabila said the airlift could use any airport except the rebel-held airport in Goma on the Rwandan border, Grandi said.

It was not clear what would happen to the refugees if they remained in Zaire after the 60-day deadline, the countdown for which starts May 1.

The refugee camps, crammed with 100,000 starving, exhausted and disease-ridden refugees days earlier, were found eerily deserted last week, five days after rebels sealed off the area to foreign aid workers and journalists.

``We are going tomorrow to the camps. We've been given access,'' said European Union envoy Aldo Ajello said after he and U.N. representatives talked with Kabila.

Flying over the jungle Sunday, aid workers spotted heavy smoke at two sites west of the abandoned camps. International officials think the smoke might be from campfires of large groups of refugees too frightened to come out of the jungle, said Paul Stromberg, a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Kisangani.

``The problem is, the forest is so dense it's virtually impossible to see anything from the air,'' he said.

The refugees are among the more than 1 million Hutus who fled Rwanda in 1994, fearing reprisals for the country's state-orchestrated genocide that killed at least 500,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Most have since returned to Rwanda.

Rebels repeatedly blocked U.N. efforts to fly the refugees home and have done little to prevent looting and attacks by Zairian villagers.

Kabila insisted that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan retract allegations last week that rebels were using a tactic of ``slow extermination'' against the refugees, sources close to Sunday's talks said. They spoke on the condition that their names be withheld, and called the meeting ``very tense.''

Kabila's forces have overrun more than half of Zaire in their seven-month-old battle to topple President Mobutu Sese Seko. South Africa, a key mediator in the war, says Mobutu and Kabila are expected to hold peace talks early this week.

Bill Richardson, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, goes to Zaire on Monday to talk with Mobutu and Kabila about the war and the Rwandan refugees.

Kabila insisted that armed men among the refugees attacked his forces, and not the other way around.

``There is a deliberate campaign of accusing the alliance for what has happened,'' he said at a news conference in Kisangani. He promised an ``independent, impartial investigation'' but did not say whether international officials would be allowed to take part.

Rebels say they are keeping some refugees under military protection at undisclosed locations. Soldiers lined the Zaire River near the camps south of Kisangani late Saturday, apparently looking for the Rwandan Hutus.

``We've been the ones who have been assembling the refugees,'' Kabila said. He said the refugees were regrouping about 60 miles south of Kisangani.

At one of the abandoned camps, Kasese, 362 of the 695 refugee children had been sick, severely malnourished or injured before they fled, according to UNICEF. In all, 4,300 unaccompanied children had been at the camps.

``No cause in the world can justify the ill treatment of 4,300 refugee children already separated from their families,'' UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said. ``These children have been on the road for seven months, fleeing 700 kilometers (435 miles) on foot.''