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Rebels insist that U.N. evacuate refugees by road, not air

April 19, 1997

KISANGANI, Zaire (AP) _ Further delaying a massive U.N. airlift, rebel leaders insisted Saturday that Rwandan refugees travel home over land _ an apparent tactic to force the United Nations to repair impassible roads in rebel-held territory.

``You shouldn’t link repatriation with rehabilitation of roads,″ U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Paul Stromberg said. ``To link the two means to postpone the repatriation for many, many months.″

The U.N. refugee agency had hoped to begin Africa’s biggest airlift last week, flying some of the 100,000 refugees from squalid camps near Kisangani, in eastern Zaire, to the Rwandan border. Trucks would carry the refugees home from there.

The rebels first complained that an airlift would spread cholera, and next comandeered the refugee agency’s jet fuel. On Saturday, they claimed an airlift would clog local airports, essential to supplying towns the rebels have seized in their seven-month battle to unseat Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko.

``It is not possible to repatriate all the refugees by airlift,″ said Emmanuel Kamanzi, a liaison officer for Laurent Kabila’s Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire. ``It would mean our major airports will be closed to all but the refugees.″

Instead, the rebels want the UNHCR to airlift only the sick and exhausted, and to send the majority of the refugees home over land _ a 300-mile trip on a narrow dirt road now thick with mud from torrential rains. The roads would require extensive repairs before they could support trucks loaded with hundreds of people. And better roads would help the rebels.

While the trip is delayed, refugees are dying at the rate of 60 a day from malaria, dysentery, pneumonia, cholera and malnutrition, Stromberg said. In addition, sending refugees by land would cost more than the $50-million airlift.

``Flying the people is the speediest and most efficient way of getting them home,″ Stromberg said.

On Saturday, aid agencies were to resume food supplies to the refugees. The effort was called off Friday, after hundreds of Zairians stoned three foreign aid vehicles, and held six employees for 90 minutes. None was injured.

The 100,000 Rwandans in two camps south of Kisangani were among 1 million who fled their country in 1994 after the then-Hutu government organized the genocide of a half-million minority Tutsis.

The mostly Hutu refugees had resisted going home because they feared retribution from the new Tutsi-run government. Now, exhausted by illness and five months of fleeing rebel advances, they are ready to return.

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