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Rebels Perpetrate 'Barbarism' Against Children, U.N. Says

By John Daniszewski
Los Angeles Times

U.N. officials Monday called it an act of "utmost barbarism": In the middle of the night, soldiers burst into a hospital where 50 severely malnourished Rwandan children were receiving emergency food and threw them "like sacks of potatoes" onto the back of a truck to be driven away to an unknown fate.

The soldiers, wearing uniforms like those worn by the Zairean rebel alliance, also beat up two nurses and an aide at the hospital in Lwiro, eastern Zaire, so badly that they had to be hospitalized and berated them for "caring for our enemies," said a spokesman for the UNICEF.

The revelations amounted to the latest allegation of serious human rights violations against Rwandan Hutu refugees by the Tutsi-allied rebel forces of Laurent Kabila, adding to charges in recent days that rebel soldiers and Zairean villagers have killed hundreds of refugees and driven tens of thousands of others away from internationally supervised camps where they were being fed.

Monday, between 5,000 and 10,000 Hutu refugees - among more than 85,000 missing since last week - emerged exhausted, frightened and hungry from forests and drifted back to camps south of Kisangani that they had fled after what they described as brutal attacks by villagers and rebel soldiers.

Humanitarian workers were able to enter one of the camps, at Biaro, for the first time in a week and discovered 20 bodies lying in a heap at the field hospital.

Some of the corpses looked as though they were former patients who had succumbed to hunger and illness, but others appeared to have been hacked to death with machetes, said Paul Stromberg, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency in Kisangani.

Aid workers have demanded a full and impartial investigation of all the human-rights violations, and are preparing to begin a long-delayed emergency airlift Tuesday aiming to repatriate Hutu refugees to Rwanda as quickly as possible, Stromberg said in an interview by telephone Monday night.

The disappearance of the refugees from the camps had set off an international outcry, including a charge from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan SM '72 that the rebels were carrying out a "slow extermination" of the Hutus, whom they blame for participation in the mass executions of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994.

At a tense face-to-face meeting Sunday with Kabila, aid agencies won his assent to bring back the refugees. But Kabila also set a 60-day deadline for the refugees' total repatriation to Rwanda.

Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said in New York that the 60-day deadline was "unrealistic. Repatriating the refugees within 60 days could be done only if they first are found, moved to a secure place, fed and given medical care, he said. U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, in Washington, also called Kabila's deadline "unreasonable and unacceptable."

But given the perilous situation of the refugees in Zaire, Stromberg said, the airlift home would begin immediately. Several hundred of the refugees will be flown from Kisangani to Kigali, Rwanda, Tuesday, he said.

Laughlin Monro, program coordinator for UNICEF in eastern Zaire, gave a detailed account of the attack at the hospital in Lwiro, 22 miles north of Bukavu near the Rwandan border. He said 50 Hutu children were taken in all, plus about 10 of their parents. Other patients in the hospital have since run away, fearing the soldiers will return.

No children have been returned and no bodies have been found, he said. The attack began at 4 a.m. when the 20 soldiers arrived in a truck, fired their guns in the air, and began carrying the children out, said Munro, expressing concern that the children were still alive given their "extremely poor physical and nutritional state" and "the extremely crude and barbarous way" they were abducted.

The children, most of whom were orphaned or had been separated from their families, had been gathered up by the humanitarian group Save the Children along the refugee trails in eastern Zaire last November and December. "These were children, not even teenagers - they had nothing to do with the fighting or the genocide in Rwanda," said UNICEF spokesman Roger Botralhy.

Kabila, who has been thrown on the defensive in the past five days by reports of rebel atrocities against Hutu refugees, consistently has denied that his troops were responsible. He blamed Hutu refugees for making up stories at the instruction of Rwandan Hutu military commanders, who fled into Zaire with the refugees in 1994 after taking part in the genocidal murders of more than 500,000 Rwandan Tutsis.