REBEL victories yesterday in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, and the country's second largest city, Butare, threaten to destabilize the region if a new wave of refugees flee the country, United Nations, relief workers, and African diplomats warn.
The rebel advances also have prompted a stark shift in the nature of the French intervention from humanitarian to military. French troops in southern Rwanda have been ordered to halt further advancement of the rebels, and the Paris government acted unilaterally yesterday to establish a ``safe area'' to protect civilians in western Rwanda.
A UN spokesman confirmed yesterday that the capital had fallen following a series of intense weekend battles between the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and government troops. ``The city is mainly in the hands of the RPF,'' Pierre Mehu, a spokesman for the UN in Rwanda said yesterday afternoon by satellite phone from Kigali. Except for small ``pockets of [Army] resistance,'' the city was calm, he added.
The rebel victories could ``unleash a new flood'' of refugees into Burundi and Zaire, another UN official in Kigali told the Monitor in a phone interview yesterday.
The RPF is mostly Tutsi, who make up only 14 percent of Rwanda's population. Almost everyone else is Hutu, including the bulk of the Rwandan Army. The Tutsi rebel victory in the capital could rouse fears among Hutus of retribution by the RPF, the UN official said.
Hutu militia are blamed by the UN for most of the killings of 200,000 to 500,000, allegedly mostly Tutsi and Hutu moderates, since Rwanda's President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down on April 6.
Even before yesterday's rebel victory, up to 100,000 Rwandans were reported heading toward the Burundi border, fleeing rebel advances in the southwest. Refugees fleeing into Burundi or Zaire could pose serious problems for those countries.
Burundi, with the same ethnic mix as Rwanda, is undergoing an ethnic and political crisis as it prepares to chose a new president on July 12. The arrival of large numbers of Rwandan refugees could further complicate the country's tense ethnic relations.
Zaire is already politically shaky. Thousands of Rwandans were reportedly massacred in ethnic clashes last year in areas bordering Rwanda.
There are ``serious risks of destabilization'' of the region due to the growing civil war in Rwanda, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said late Friday.
France urged the UN Security Council on Saturday to approve establishment of humanitarian security zones. France's ambassador to the UN, Jean-Bernard Merimee, was reported to have told Mr. Boutros-Ghali that unless the Security Council approved such zones, France would be obliged to pull its troops back from Rwanda into its temporary bases in neighboring Zaire.
Establishing the zones, under French protection, would in effect draw lines in the sand between the RPF and the government Army, with the French standing in the middle. Yet the French have promised not to become buffer- zone policemen in the war. And the RPF has promised to shoot them if they try.
On Sunday, near Butare, RPF soldiers fired on French troops who were evacuating orphans, despite what the French say was a temporary cease-fire agreement to allow the evacuation. French soldiers returned the fire. It was the first time the two sides had clashed since French troops arrived last month.
The establishment of French safety zones ``could be negative,'' cautions Chris Hennemeyer of Catholic Relief Services, a United States charity helping to supply assistance to Rwanda.
``My assumption was that once the RPF grabbed Butare and nailed down Kigali, we'd be looking at peace talks ... in a week or two,'' Mr. Hennemeyer says. But French resistance could ``prolong the war in Rwanda ... pushing tens of thousands of refugees into Burundi.''
Such refugees might be fleeing safety zones that came under RPF attack or other areas as the war continues. UN officials and private relief agencies already are making contingency plans for a massive wave of refugees into Burundi.
``The situation is very fluid,'' says Sybella Wilkes, a spokeswoman for the Rwanda operation of the UN's Department of Humanitarian Affairs. ``We're having to think of a number of scenarios: What if hundreds of thousands [of refugees] move into Burundi and Zaire?''
The ambassadors to Kenya from both Rwanda and Burundi welcome safety zones in Rwanda.
``For the protection of the civilians, it's a good idea,'' says Cyprien Habimana, Rwanda's ambassador here. ``Burundi is a hostile country; they [the Burundi military] are killing refugees going there.''