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Zairian Refugees Fled Camp Said to Be Attacked by Rebels

By James Rupert
The Washington Post
GOMA, Zaire

Zairian rebel troops appear to have attacked a refugee camp in dense jungle near the city of Kisangani, forcing about 50,000 sick, exhausted and malnourished people to flee into the surrounding forest, U.N. officials said Thursday.

U.N. workers went searching Thursday for an estimated 100,000 refugees - ethnic Hutus from Rwanda - who in recent weeks have been huddled in rude camps along a dirt road south of rebel-held Kisangani, Zaire's third-largest city. Local officials of the rebel alliance, which controls about half of Zaire, had refused relief workers access to the camps for three days, while travelers from the region reported that residents or soldiers there were attacking the camps.

Thursday, when rebel officials and troops escorted U.N. workers to the nearest of the camps, which had held an estimated 50,000 people, it was "completely empty," said Filippo Grandi, head of U.N. refugee operations in eastern Zaire. What remained "was a scene that suggested a mass flight of refugees, under threat," he said via satellite telephone from Kisangani.

Grandi said he was awaiting a formal explanation from local officials. But he said he had been told informally that rebel forces attacked the camp because former Rwandan soldiers and militiamen among the Hutu refugees allegedly had attacked nearby villages.

"There was scattered gunfire everywhere" in the jungle surrounding the camp, Grandi said, and the convoy returned to Kisangani without being able to check on the state of other camps, which also were rumored to have been attacked. He said his team had seen areas of recently dug earth near the camps but had been unable to inspect them to determine whether they might be mass graves.

The refugees' disappearance follows accusations by top U.N. and U.S. officials that the rebel alliance is obstructing efforts to help the Hutu refugees, perhaps in hopes that they will perish in the jungles.

The rebel forces, which seek to overthrow Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko, include a large contingent of ethnic Tutsis, some of whom have fought brutal wars with Hutus in eastern Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi.

"If the rebel alliance would like to have normal relations with Western governments, they've got to act in a credible way and a humanitarian way, and that doesn't seem to be the case right here," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said on Wednesday.

The Hutus south of Kisangani fled Rwanda in 1994, after a Tutsi-led rebel force seized power there and halted the slaughter of an estimated half-million Tutsis by Hutu extremists in the government, armed forces and militias. More than a million settled in camps in Zaire, and armed elements among them staged raids into their home country.