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Violence Rampages Rwanda As Leader Is Feared Killed

By Keith B. Richburg
The Washington Post
NAIROBI, Kenya

The tiny central African country of Rwanda appeared yesterday to have descended into chaos. Soldiers and civilians rampaged through the streets of the capital, Kigali, and government ministers reportedly came under attack following the apparent assassination there of Presidents Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyrpien Ntaryamira of neighboring Burundi.

Burundi was calm. But reports from Kigali, where a plane carrying the two leaders was reported to have crashed Wednesday night after coming under hostile fire, said automatic weapons, mortars and heavy machine guns echoed through the city for most of the day beginning at dawn.

The gunfire was concentrated around the presidential palace and in neighborhoods housing government ministries, as rival military factions battled for control and youths roamed the streets armed with machetes and knives, the reports said.

Among the reported dead were Rwanda's prime minister, at least 11 Belgian members of a U.N. peacekeeping force and 17 priests.

Although details were sketchy, the violence suggested a breakdown of a truce reached last year between Rwanda's government, dominated by members of the majority Hutu tribe, and a three-year-old rebel movement of minority Tutsis.

Some reports said many victims in Kigali were Tutsis attacked by Hutu soldiers or civilians who blamed them for Habyarimana's apparent assassination. No reliable information has surfaced yet about the plane's downing, reportedly by a rocket fired as the aircraft was landing after a flight from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

"It's still very chaotic in Kagali," said Pat Johns, coordinator of Africa programs for Catholic Relief Services, which has an office in the embattled capital. "There are reports of a lot of shooting going on, and we have reports of a number of assassinations. The military appears to be using this as an opportunity to go after members of the (government)."

French and Belgian officials said military forces at their bases in Central Africa had been placed on alert and were ready to move into Rwanda to protect the lives of expatriate workers as well as to bolster the U.N. peacekeeping contingent there.

There were persistent reports, from witnesses and diplomats in Kigali, that government ministers were being rounded up by soldiers and some had been executed. Belgian BRTN Radio reported that several ministers and top officials had been killed, and other sources in Brussels and Paris said many government officials had gone into hiding. Kigali's airport remained closed.

A group of journalists who tried to enter on a charter flight were diverted to neighboring Uganda. Telephone communication to Rwanda was extremely difficult, and many of the specific reports of violence in the capital could not be confirmed. But those who were in contact with Kigali painted a picture of a city out of control.

In New York, Chinmaya Gharekhan, a top U.N. official, said Presidential Guard troops, whose loyalty apparently is only to Habyarimana, had raided the homes of several opposition leaders and kidnapped them and their families.

Among the reported hostages were the president of Rwanda's constitutional court and the president of the National Assembly, and there were unconfirmed reports they had been killed.

Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana also is presumed dead, although Gharekhan said the United Nations had not received any eyewitness confirmation of her execution yesterday morning, reportedly by Presidential Guard soldiers.

Uwilingiyimana, one of Africa's first female prime ministers, was a Tutsi appointed by Habyarimana last July in what was seen as a gesture that he was ready to make concessions to the rebel Tutsi force.

According to a U.N. situation report, the prime minister had sought refuge inside a compound of the U.N. Development Program, and the U.N. commander, Brig. Gen. Romeo Dallaire of Canada, dispatched armored personnel carriers to rescue her. But "under the rules of engagement, they did not use force to get through, especially since U.N. (headquarters) had instructed the commander that (peacekeepers) should fire only in self-defense," the report said. The prime minister's guards were "overpowered and she was taken away and reportedly killed in another spot," it said.