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Rwandan Peace Jeopardized by Ethnic Slaughter Saturday

By Stephen Buckley
The Washington Post
KIGALI, Rwanda

The killing by the Rwandan army of hundreds of people at a large refugee camp has dealt a crucial blow to the fledgling government's declared goal of promoting reconciliation between the nation's two main ethnic groups.

At least 2,000 people, most of them from the country's Hutu majority, were trampled to death or fatally wounded Saturday afternoon when soldiers from the Tutsi-led Rwandan army fired on 80,000 inhabitants of the Kibeho camp in southwest Rwanda. The killings constituted the bloodiest violence since the last year's civil war.

Before and during that war, members of the Hutu majority slaughtered more than 500,000 people from the Tutsi minority, reviving a bloody ethnic struggle that has plagued Rwanda and neighboring Burundi sporadically since they gained independence from Belgium in 1962.

Ultimately, relief workers said, Saturday's killings revealed again the profound scars left by that history and particularly by the latest round of ethnic killing that erupted one year ago.

The Tutsi-run Rwandan Patriotic Front, which won the conflict and established a new government in Kigali, repeatedly has pledged to rebuild the country by reconciling the two groups. The Tutsi-led regime appointed Hutus to some key posts, vowed to avoid references to Rwanda's ethnic groups in announcements or literature and promised to add courses on ethnic tolerance to school curricula.

During and after the war, though, hundreds of thousands of Hutus had fled their homes, fearing revenge killings by Tutsis, and since then have rejected government efforts to get them to return home from refugee camps set up by the United Nations and foreign governments during the fighting.

The government's commitment to reconciling Hutus and Tutsis also has been central to its efforts to persuade international donors to invest in a new Rwanda. Since Saturday, several nations, including the United States, have expressed alarm over the slayings, raising the specter that already meager aid programs will be curtailed.

"It was a setback," said Shaharyar M. Khan, U.N. special representative of the secretary general in Rwanda. "Now the government is trying to engage in damage control, rightly. They're saying let's get back on track and try to get the process of reconciliation going again."

France condemned the Rwandan army's actions on Sunday and Belgium announced that it will reassess its commitments of aid. On Saturday, the White House also condemned the soldiers' actions. (The State Department dispatched Assistant Secretary of State George Moose to try to determine who was responsible and to learn what the United States can do to help in the aftermath, a spokesman said.)

"Obviously Saturday's violence raises serious questions among the international community about the direction in which the government is headed," said Alison Des Forges, a Rwanda expert from the State University of New York-Buffalo who has been in Butare, southwest of this capital, for several weeks.

Rwandan government officials insist that only 300 people died when troops tried to defend themselves after being shot at and threatened with machetes at the camp 20 miles east of Butare. At a news conference Monday, President Pasteur Bizimungu accused the media of reporting inflated death tolls, saying that newspapers and television had grossly exaggerated the incident.

Thousands of soldiers first descended on the camp last Tuesday, announcing that the government was about to shut the area because it had become a haven for Hutus who had taken part in the genocide. Four tense days followed, with more than two hours of shooting on Saturday - when troops allegedly chased refugees, shooting some and bayoneting others. Witnesses said soldiers launched rocket-propelled grenades and fired mortars into crowds.

Throughout Monday, the Kibeho camp remained calm. Between 300 and 1,000 refugees - some armed - remained there despite promises from the army that they would not be harmed if they departed.

In Butare, thousands of refugees filled a soccer stadium, waiting to receive food and medical help. Thousands of others continued to push toward their communities despite scattered reports that Tutsis were assaulting refugees returning home, aid workers said.

Several analysts said that Saturday's events were especially surprising because of the reputation of Rwanda's army as one of Africa's most disciplined.