World Aims to Return Mass of Hutu Refugees

But many may not leave Zaire for Tutsi-led Rwanda

An international community concerned at the possibility of a humanitarian catastrophe in Central Africa is desperately trying to find ways to once and for all get more than 1 million Rwandan refugees back home from Zaire.

The latest proposal is to create an international military force to protect corridors where the mass of mostly Hutu refugees could get food and be safely repatriated to the country they fled after the 1994 genocide carried out by some of their number.

Diplomats agree it sounds logical. Humanitarian organizations say there is no other choice to save a region exploding with Tutsi-Hutu conflict.

But the question everyone is asking in Zaire, host to the refugees, is: Will the multitudes go home?

"The safe corridors is a great idea. It is all that we have left," said a senior African diplomat. "But the fear of going back and facing reprisals is so deep that I doubt the vast majority of the refugees will want to return."

Rwanda has said it will accept the refugees back, but with tens of thousands of Hutu genocide-collaborators languishing in Rwandan jails, it is difficult to imagine the returnees will be treated humanely.

There is also a severe shortage of housing in the densely populated country and many Tutsis have occupied the houses of Hutus.

Advocates of the corridors expressed the hope that if enough safety guarantees are offered to the refugees, they can be lured back to their homeland. Diplomats have mentioned the possibility that food will be placed on the Rwandan side.

The international community, which stood by impotently during the 1994 genocide, has been slow to react as Hutu-Tutsi problems have seeped across borders.

But the urgency to act increased over the past couple of weeks with the capture of the area around the camps by Zairean Tutsi rebels, who apparently have the backing of Rwanda's Tutsi-led government. The fighting sent hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing without food or water deeper into Zaire.

This has created a conundrum for aid organizations, who evacuated the camps after their cars and warehouses were looted by Zairean soldiers. They have left the refugees, among them Zaireans and Burundians, to fend for themselves.

Up to half a million are at Mugunga camp, where former Hutu Rwandan soldiers and militiamen are believed to be digging in, and where food left behind by fleeing aid workers will run out in a few days.

No one knows exactly where hundreds of thousands of other refugees are wandering - or how long they will survive.

"It could be a catastrophe - with hunger, epidemics, and untreated wounded. It's difficult to know. We have no one on the ground," said Vincent Nicod, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Kinshasa, Zaire's capital.

Zaire has given a green light to the proposed protection force but has opposed aid groups' resupplying the refugee camps that are destabilizing the country. It remains to be seen whether Zaire can be persuaded to allow emergency life-sustaining assistance for a limited period of time.

The UN has assigned a special envoy, Canadian Raymond Chrtin, to the Great Lakes region for contacts in Zaire and Rwanda to set the corridor plan in motion.

Assistant UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sergio Vieira de Mello was in Kinshasa on Thursday as part of Chrtin's mission. Mr. de Mello said it was of utmost urgency to regain access to the dispersed refugees, provide them emergency aid - and then get them moving.

"The priority should be the repatriation and safety of the refugees, most of whom are innocent people. This situation has lasted too long and contributed to the instability and recent conflict in the region."

Diplomats say negotiations will complicated by the power vacuum in Zaire. President Mobutu Sese Seko is convalescing in Europe. And Prime Minister Leon Kengo wa Dondo, left at the helm, is under increasing pressure to resign.

The French-led proposal for an international force promises to be a more polemic question, with diplomats wondering whether it could be set up quickly enough to solve the crisis. It calls for a contingent of 5,000 troops to deploy for two months, then be quickly supplanted by an African force.

The proposal, however, envisions each country paying for its own contribution, effectively limiting African participation. France estimates its contribution of 1,000 troops will cost about $700 million.

Promises of troops have come also from Spain, Italy, and Ethiopia.

Further complicating the matter is that Tutsi rebels oppose France's participation. And it remains to be seen how much international support the proposal will muster. Washington is thinking about the plan but so far has not committed itself. One key African figure, South African President Nelson Mandela, has offered diplomatic support.

Acceptance of such a force by local players would also hinge on clarifying its mandate, rules of engagement, and whether it would have the right to disarm Hutu militias still in Rwanda.

"I suspect it would probably be a mix of Africa and Western forces," said one senior diplomat. "The idea would be that it would be on the ground quickly."

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