April 23, 1997

Zairians say rebels killed many Rwandan refugees

By Matthew Bigg

LULA, Zaire- Zairian villagers said Wednesday Tutsi-dominated rebels slaughtered many Rwandan Hutu refugees at camps sealed off from aid workers and journalists for three days.

But rebel leader Laurent Kabila told Reuters by telephone from Zaire's second largest city, Lubumbashi, that the reports were ``total nonsense.'' He said Rwandan Hutu militiamen had attacked villagers and Zairian rebel fighters only intervened to stop the fighting.

The villagers, traveling toward Kisangani, said a pitched battle between rebels and refugees accompanied the slaughter on Tuesday at camps near Kasese village, 15 miles south of the city.

``The (rebel) army went to the camp at 8 a.m. yesterday. They killed many, many refugees -- hundreds. There was lots of shooting all morning,'' Alphonse Soku, a farmer, told Reuters.

``They used a mechanical digger to bury the bodies.''

Two Zairian women standing nearby agreed with Soku's account. All three appeared frightened and reluctant to talk.

The camps at Kasese for 55,000 Rwandan refugees have been sealed off from aid workers and journalists for three days.

``There is no truth whatsoever in these reports. The truth is that local Zaireans were attacked by the Rwandan Hutu militia and our army only stepped in to stop the fighting,'' he said.

He blamed chaos in the camps on the United Nations for failing to address the issue of the Rwandan Hutu refugees.

The U.N. refugee agency said it was checking reports many people had been killed and the Kasese refugees had fled after a rebel military operation Tuesday and attacks by villagers.

``This is horrifying because we have our hands tied as far as being able to help these people but now we hear they are being killed,'' said Brenda Barton, spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program. She said she had one report 500 people were killed.

Paul Stromberg, UNHCR spokesman in Kisangani, said rebels denied permission on security grounds for a flight over Kasese Wednesday to find the refugees and see what had happened.

``We have received reports that the population at the Kasese camps may have moved from the sites,'' said Stromberg. ``We were told a military operation was under way in the region and we are now very disturbed about these reports of killings.''

Emmanuel Kamanzi, Zairian rebel liasion officer with U.N. agencies, denied that permission for the flight had been denied, saying agencies asked too late and the security situation was unclear.

Asked about the killings, he told Reuters, ``Soldiers of the (rebel) alliance couldn't do that. On the contrary, it was ex-FAR (former Rwandan Hutu troops) who attacked the refugees.''

``The military (rebels) have not killed people just for the sake of it. But if there was combat then of course people will be killed,'' he added in Kisangani, taken by rebels March 15.

The Hutus fled Rwanda in 1994 and are collectively accused by minority Tutsis of genocide in Rwanda in the same year.

Most returned home in November but the remainder arrived at their Kasese camps in mid-March after six months of trekking over volcanic rock and through bush and jungle in a vain attempt to flee the Tutsi-backed rebels.

Kabila bowed to international pressure April 5 and agreed to an airlift to repatriate 100,000 Rwandan refugees at Kasese and further south toward Ubundu. But it has failed to start.

Angry Zairians blocked aid workers and journalists from reaching Kasese Monday and Tuesday and looted food aid.

Witnesses said villagers attacked the camps Tuesday to avenge the killing of six people in Kasese village Monday. Rebels swept the area after the killings, which were blamed by local people on Rwandan Hutu extremists among the refugees.

But a woman wounded in the same attack Monday said she was shot by men who resembled the Tutsi-dominated rebels.

``The soldiers wore uniform. They were tall and thin and I heard them speaking Kinyarwanda. They were not refugees,'' said Mayaza Apaijoma, 20, at a Catholic hospital after being shot.

The testimony was the latest sign of a concerted attempt by rebels to destabilize aid operations and block the U.N. airlift.

``I have ... appealed to the international community to work with me in pressing Kabila and those in the region who back him, to push him to allow assistance to the refugees,'' Secretary General Kofi Annan said at U.N. headquarters, in the latest of a stream of such appeals by U.N. officials.

The rebel-appointed governor of Zaire's Eastern Province said Sunday the airlift should not start until May 5 because of a cholera epidemic. But despite a declaration by the World Health Organization's local represewntative that there was an epidemic, WHO in Geneva said the outbreak was not big enough to be classified as an epidemic.

The refugees have fled 375 miles since last October and more than 1,500 have died at the camps south of Kisangani.