ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- With evacuation efforts paralyzed for thousands of sick and starving Rwandan Hutu refugees stranded in central Zaire, United Nations officials are accusing Zaire's rebel movement of deliberately impeding emergency relief operations aimed at helping them.

International relief agencies say there is evidence of a drive by the Zairian insurgents to kill off thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees.

In an unusually blunt criticism Monday, the head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, accused the Zairian rebellion led by Laurent Kabila of manufacturing pretenses to deny relief workers access to as many as 100,000 of the desperate Hutus who are located in the region of Kisangani and of preventing the operation of an airlift to transport them home.

U.N. officials said that for days, rebels of Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo had been whipping up anti-refugee sentiment in areas that it controls, leading to civilian attacks against the refugees, and blocking work to bring relief to thousands of people, ensuring that many will starve.

"Crowds of civilians have been attacking aid vehicles and looting food aid over the last four days," Ogata said. "In the border town of Goma, the other end of the proposed air bridge from Kisangani, local authorities commandeered jet fuel earmarked for the airlift. The latest security operation, mounted in response to the alleged killing of Zairian nationals by refugees, follows an aggressive radio campaign against the refugees in the region."

Among the other reasons given by the rebels for stalling the airlift have been expressions of concern that moving the refugees might spread cholera. The government of Rwanda, meanwhile, has said that it cannot allow its airspace to be crowded by an intensive airlift operation.

But in Geneva, the World Health Organization said the cholera present was not big enough to be classified as an epidemic.

To try to secure the cooperation of the rebels, the heads of the U.N. refugee agency and the U.N. Childrens' Fund have appealed to South Africa's president, Nelson Mandela, and other African leaders to use their influence with Kabila.

From shortly after its beginnings in October as an uprising by Zairian ethnic Tutsis in the far eastern regions of Zaire, neighboring Rwanda and Burundi, Kabila's rebellion has been accused of waging war on the large populations of Hutus from Rwanda and Burundi who had taken up refuge in Zairian border regions after Rwanda's genocidal 1994 civil war.

Even before their insurrection spread far into Zaire, the rebels, largely composed of Tutsi troops, attacked the crowded Hutu refugee camps of Goma and Bukavu, dispersing the more than 1 million people who had settled there.

Many refugees have since returned to Rwanda, but together with elements of Rwanda's defeated former army and Hutu militias, hundreds of thousands of other Hutu refugees fled the violence by penetrating ever deeper into the forests of eastern Zaire.

Zaire's rebels control over half the country and appear poised to unseat President Mobutu Sese Seko. But international relief groups who have followed the movements of the refugees say that throughout the war, Kabila's fighters have never lost sight of another apparent priority: wiping out pockets of Rwandan Hutus in Zaire.

According to the relief official, people in several areas of eastern Zaire say that armed units of Kabila's alliance have followed a strategy of lurking near relief operations in isolated areas, picking off and killing straggling groups of Hutu refugees before they can reach help.

A confidential report by the relief group said that in one village, Kingulube, a mass burial site was found by locals near a rebel military post.

At another spot nearby, locals said that about 200 refugees were executed in one day, Feb. 15.

Although the rebels have denied attacking refugees, and have dismissed such reports as "propaganda," relief groups active in eastern Zaire say that they have been denied access to areas where rebel military operations are under way or have recently taken place.

Moreover, they say, foreign aid workers have been threatened by rebel officers when reports of human rights abuses appear in the international press.

In Geneva yesterday, the United Nations said the rebels had given them permission to investigate claims that rebel forces killed refugees. The U.N. Human Rights Commission cited accounts of mass graves containing anything from a few hundred to 50,000 corpses.

Whatever the reasons that have been used in delaying the relief efforts and evacuation of the refugees, aid workers say that the result is already known.

"In the end, however the rebels wish to explain all of these obstacles won't matter," said one relief official in Kisangani. "Lots of people have died unnecessarily, and lots more are dying every day."

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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