Refugees Scatter as Tutsi Rebels Overrun Aid Hub, With Rwanda's Help

As they swept north along Zaire's border with Rwanda and Burundi last week, Zairean Tutsi rebels known as the Banyamulenge effectively appropriated a small chunk of vast Zaire. But the rebels left unclear exactly what they intend to do with it.

The victories came with remarkable ease as undisciplined Zairean soldiers fled their posts virtually without putting up a fight, stopping only to pillage the towns they were meant to defend and leaving roads lined with debris in their wake. In Bukavu, the second key city to fall, the soldiers also took time to execute at least 28 residents before departing. The Tutsi rebels have been more restrained upon entering newly won districts, urging residents to stay and refraining from looting.

But the rebel advance has sent hundreds of thousands of Rwandan and Burundian refugees in Zaire scurrying from their camps, some under direct attack. Mostly ethnic Hutus, they have fled into lush hills and banana plantations, refusing to return home, many fleeing west, deeper into Zaire. Relief workers have been reluctant to leave the refugees to certain catastrophe. In Goma, the last United Nations refugee agency workers in the region stayed on two days after their New York headquarters sent permission - or orders, it wasn't clear which - to evacuate. About 100 UN and other agency workers gathered in a designated safe house, only to find themselves pinned to the floor for hours under intense machine-gun fire. When they finally made a dash for the border during a lull in the fighting, they passed three dead Zairean soldiers on the front lawn With no relief workers left in eastern Zaire, agencies are warning that without international intervention, the refugees face a disaster worse than that in 1994, when 50,000 died.

When the Banyamulenge launched their rebellion two weeks ago, their declared goal was to win Zairean citizenship. A local administrator had just given the Banyamulenge two weeks to leave Zaire or be hunted down by the Army. This was the latest in a series of humiliations and slights for a group of people who have lived in eastern Zaire for up to 200 years, but who have seen their citizenship revoked and political rights denied.

As the rebels have become giddy with victory, they have substantially broadened their aim. Calling his group the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, leader Laurent Desire Kabila told reporters his group intended to oust Africa's longest-sitting dictator, Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko. "This is a movement against tyranny and corruption," he told one crowd.

Whatever the Tutsi movement's aim, it has become increasingly clear that it derives support from neighboring Rwanda's Tutsi-led government, despite that country's insistent denials. Twice last week Rwandan soldiers engaged in heavy cross-border shelling with Zaire's Army. They then crossed the border to help rebels secure control first of Bukavu, then Goma. To diplomats and aid workers, it all appears well-orchestrated and frighteningly premeditated.

They point out that Rwanda's government has every reason to encourage a Tutsi buffer zone on its border with Zaire. Until now, that border has been lined with camps housing 1 million Rwandan Hutu refugees who fled after Rwanda's 1994 genocide of Tutsis.

Among them are many militia members accused of committing the massacres. The militias have used the camps to launch revenge attack back into Rwanda. By assisting the Banyamulenge rebels in pushing the refugees back, Rwanda appears to be successfully protecting its borders for the moment. Yet such a scheme only heightens ethnic tensions that threaten to explode yet again.

International diplomats have organized a summit for regional heads of state to be held Tuesday in Nairobi, Kenya. Zairean Prime Minister Kengo wa Dondo has refused to attend, accusing not only Rwanda but also Burundi and Uganda of wanting to carve up its land. Rwanda has agreed to attend, but continues to deny its troops' involvement in the conflict.

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