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Rwandan Commander, Relief Workers Prepare to Handle Fleeing Refugeees

By Keith B. Richburg
The Washington Post
RUSUMO FALLS BRIDGE, Rwandan-Tanzanian Border
The Rwandan rebel commander was angry. He had heard a shortwave radio report that his guerrilla organization had sealed off Rwanda's border with Tanzania, trapping as many as a quarter-million people who wanted to flee the country's ethnic carnage. The commander wanted to set foreign journalists straight.

"They said we are blocking people who want to run away from this place," the commander said. "This border is not closed." Look around, he told the small group of reporters at the bridge. Indeed, there was no one in sight, except for troops of the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front lounging on one side of the bridge and Tanzanian soldiers on the other.

Since April 6, when President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was killed in a plane crash that was blamed on a rocket attack, Hutus in the military and Presidential Guard, along with tribal militias, have killed thousands of Tutsi tribespeople, as well as Hutus suspected of supporting opposition political groups, according to witnesses and human rights groups. At the same time, the rebel front - dominated by Tutsis - renewed fighting with the military that began in 1990. In all, an estimated 200,000 people have been killed in less than four weeks.

Foreign relief officials said they are discussing with the Tanzanian government ways of trying to collect the grisly debris before it becomes a major health hazard for Tanzania, part of which relies on the river for a share of its water supply. But at the moment, everyone seems overwhelmed.

Relief workers say they are fortunate so far that the Rwandans who fled here seemed prepared for their exodus. "We're not dealing with a very malnourished population," said Sheila Wilson, of the Red Cross. But, she said, "it's a time bomb."

Even as they struggled to accommodate the Rwandans, many relief workers said they were concerned that reports of renewed fighting between Hutus and Tutsis in neighboring Burundi might presage a new refugee crisis, similar to one six months ago that brought a quarter-million Burundians into Tanzania, most of whom have since returned. "It's very tense," Krug said of the situation in Burundi. "It will probably explode in another week. If that happens, we'll be completely overwhelmed."