Time is running out for up to a million Rwanda Hutu refugees cut off in Zaire


AID AGENCIES and the United Nations say time is running out for up to a million refugees who have fled fighting in eastern Zaire and may exhaust their food supplies in the next few days.

The Rwandan Hutu refugees are now out of reach of the agencies, having fled deeper into Zaire rather than return home to Rwanda.

The Hutus fled Rwanda in 1994, fearing Tutsi retaliation for their militias' genocide of up to a million Tutsis. Now they have fled their camps on the Rwandan border, fearing the Tutsi Banyamulenge fighters who have swept through the region.

The key eastern Zairean towns of Uvira, Bukavu and Goma were reported yesterday to be in rebel hands. Shooting was heard outside Goma and Bukavu, but this is understood to have been between the victorious Banyamulenge and retreating Zairean army forces, hacked by Hutu militias.

Information out of Goma was sketchy last night. Almost all foreign aid workers have left, many communications lines have been lost during the fighting, and a group of journalists which tried to enter Goma from Rwanda yesterday was turned back by Rwandan authorities.

The Banyamulenge uprising began last month after the Zairean authorities told the Tutsi people - whose ancestors moved from Rwanda to east Zaire more than 200 years ago - to leave the country or be killed.

The Zaireans greatly underestimated the Banyamulenge, who have driven the disorganised Zairean army out of much of eastern Zaire.

Their successes have raised fears that other Zairean provinces may revolt against the central Zairean government in Kinshasa. Should Zaire begin to disintegrate, there are fears that the conflict will spread throughout central Africa.

Intense diplomatic efforts are under way to try to defuse the situation. A delegation of the Organisation for African Unity arrived in Rwanda for talks yesterday, while the EU's special envoy, Mr Aldo Ajello, had talks with Zairean and Rwandan leaders in advance of a planned summit meeting of regional leaders in Kenya tomorrow.

That meeting will consider a proposal to establish "humanitarian corridors" to allow food to reach the refugees from Rwanda, and to allow refugees who wish to do so to return to Rwanda.

Zaire's Prime Minister, Mr Kengo Wa Dondo, yesterday said his country would not attend such a summit while Rwandan troops were on Zairean soil.

Rwanda is still denying that its troops have entered Zaire to assist the Banyamulenge. This position is contradicted, however, by aid workers and others, many of whom have seen Rwandan troops in the centre of Goma.

In another development, the Prime Minister of Zaire is under internal pressure because he has a Tutsi grandparent.

Zaire's army chief of general staff Gen Eluki Monga Aundu, on Saturday accused him of not doing enough to help soldiers at the front.

"We regret that the government is moving too slowly and has not yet given us the necessary means," he said, threatening a counterattack inside Rwanda once the army had the equipment.

In Kinshasa, Zaireans have attacked and looted Tutsi owned houses and businesses.