Associated Press

April 24, 1997

U.N.: Some Rwandan Refugees Flee

KASESE, Zaire (AP) -- Only days ago, this squalid refugee camp held 55,000 Rwandan Hutus, many of them sick with cholera and malaria. On Thursday, the camp was deserted, and the fate of the refugees a mystery.

``I'm absolutely shocked. There was a camp here four days ago. People were sick, hungry and too weak to walk. Where are they?'' asked Filippo Grandi, an official with the U.N. refugee agency.

Anti-government rebels who have captured half of Zaire since September sealed off the area around the Kasese camp on Monday, after villagers living nearby went on a rampage because they blamed refugees for the murder of six locals. Zairian mobs -- long resentful of Hutu refugees receiving food and other aid -- looted U.N. warehouses and attacked aid workers, journalists and refugees.

On Thursday, rebels accompanied U.N. human rights workers, Rwandan government officials and reporters into Kasese.

There was no one left.

``We're very concerned about their lives. And we need answers from rebels about their fate,'' Grandi said.

The rebels said they, too, were puzzled.

``I know as much as you do. I have to find out what's going on,'' said Moise Nyarugabo Muhizi, an aide to rebel leader Laurent Kabila who accompanied the group.

The eerie emptiness of Kasese contrasted with flights from other Rwandan camps where hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- were left behind because they were too old, weak or ill to run.

At Kasese there was no one, even though at least 5,000 hospital patients and 3,000 unaccompanied children had been waiting for help that never came.

When the team arrived at Kasese, there were gunshots and the occasional whistle of bullets over the palm-frond huts and crushed plastic fence.

Moise blamed the shooting on ``a front line nearby,'' although there was little sign of combat.

When the team approached a mass grave where Zairian Red Cross workers had been burying about 60 refugees a day -- victims of malaria, dysentery and cholera -- the shooting intensified and the rebels ordered the team to leave after just 30 minutes.

Peter Kessler, a U.N. human rights spokesman based in Nairobi, Kenya, said the team found a fresh dirt mound in the camp, but didn't have time to examine it.

The refugees -- among an estimated 100,000 camped south of the eastern Zairian regional capital of Kisangani -- are among more than 1 million Rwandans who fled their country in 1994 after a Tutsi guerrilla movement ousted the Hutu government. They feared reprisals for the slaughter by Hutus of at least 500,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates.

The rebels, many of them ethnic Tutsis from eastern Zaire, have been fighting to oust Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko since September. In their drive across Zaire -- they now control nearly half the country -- they also have clashed with renegade Rwandan soldiers among the refugees.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan demanded Wednesday that the rebels let the aid workers help the refugees. Rebel Information Minister Raphael Ghenda said Thursday that Annan had been misinformed.

``We are not blocking anything,'' Ghenda said in the eastern city of Lubumbashi. He said confusion within the U.N. refugee agency prevented aid from getting through.

But in New York, the 15-nation U.N. Security Council made it clear Thursday that it held the rebels responsible for the potential humanitarian catastrophe.

``The Security Council is dismayed by continued lack of access being afforded by the (rebels) ... and by the recent acts of violence which have hampered the delivery of humanitarian assistance,'' it said in a statement.

More meetings between the U.N. refugee agency, rebels and the Rwandan government were planned for Friday. But a planned U.N. airlift of refugees to the Rwandan border had clearly been indefinitely postponed.