Concern is mounting over the future of thousands of Rwandan refugees who have been cut off from international assistance for more than a week by Zairean rebels.
Aid workers say they have been able to find only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 refugees who have vanished into the dense forests after three days of reported fighting between Zairean rebels, villagers, and Hutu militants.
The crisis has become a public relations fiasco for rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila. On Friday, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan accused the rebels of a policy of "slow extermination" toward the Rwandan Hutu refugees. In a radio address, Mr. Kabila denied the charges, calling the refugee crisis "a little problem."
UN officials met with Kabila in Kisangani, Zaire, over the weekend to find a way to protect the refugees and gain immediate access to them. Aid workers say this is the only way to get food and medicine to the refugees, who are apparently too frightened to come out of the forest.
Tension had risen in recent days between the Rwandans and impoverished local Zaireans, who resent the assistance the refugees have received. Rwandan Hutu refugees fleeing one camp this weekend reported that Zairean villagers had massacred hundreds of refugees there. In addition, a train carrying supplies was attacked, and food warehouses have been looted.
More than 80,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees had been living outside of this rebel-controlled northern city on the Zaire River. Efforts to return them to Rwanda met with many obstacles, including security problems and the taking by the rebels of fuel needed for refugee transport.
"We're very concerned about ... the general security for the Zairean villagers, and for the refugees themselves," says Paul Stromberg, spokesman for the UN refugee agency in Kisangani.
Human rights workers in the region say thousands of refugees and Zairean civilians have been killed since the rebellion to topple Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko erupted seven months ago.
At least 1 million Hutus fled Rwanda for Zaire in 1994, fearing reprisals after the genocide of more than 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis. Most of them have returned home on their own, but groups are still scattered over eastern and central Zaire.
Zairean rebels, many of whom are Tutsis, have been trying to clear eastern Zaire of former Rwandan Hutu soldiers and militiamen, the perpetrators of the genocide, who have been using refugees as human shields.
Former Hutu soldiers and militia members were among the refugees who returned to Rwanda late last year, and Rwanda's Tutsi government worries that a large-scale repatriation would be an ideal way for more fighters to return home undetected.
Before the refugees vanished, the UN had been trying to airlift them home. The repatriation effort would have been the largest and most complicated of its kind ever undertaken. Now aid workers are just trying to find the refugees, many of whom are believed to be ailing and malnourished. "It's not a repatriation anymore," says Filippo Grandi, eastern Zaire's field coordinator for the UN refugee agency. "It's a rescue operation."
In a sense, the infamous legacy of Zairean President Mobutu may be partly to blame for the slow response from the international community in regard to allegations of human rights abuses by the rebels. The common perception, relief workers say, is that Mobutu and his undisciplined military, which have looted towns and villages as they have retreated, are the evildoers. So Kabila and his rebels have looked good in comparison.
"All this said, I think the [rebel] alliance has to take responsibility and limit their actions to the enemy," Mr. Grandi says.