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Rwandan Refugees Caught Between Rival Sides

RWANDA'S future depends on the outcome of a tug of war between the new Tutsi-led government and the defeated Hutu leaders over the plight of more than 2 million refugees, according to both sides in the struggle.

Without the return of the refugees, the credibility of the new regime, as well as the country's economy, is in danger, senior government officials admit.

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But return of the refugees would isolate the ousted leaders, undermining any plans for using the refugees as a bargaining chip for the leaders' safe return to Rwanda. And it would deprive the defeated Hutu leaders of a recruiting ground for any future attempt to rebuild their Army.

Several refugees have been killed by the defeated Rwandan Army soldiers in recent weeks, and others have been threatened for trying to return home. A Hutu encouraging people to go home reportedly was killed in a camp near Goma, Zaire, Aug. 28.

What Catherine Bertinni, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, last month called a ``war of words'' by Hutu militants - who use radio propaganda to discourage refugees from returning - has turned into a much more vicious campaign.

Ambassador Muhammad Shahryar Khan, special representative of the UN secretary-general in Rwanda, in a telephone interview from the Rwandan capital, Kigali, called such killing and intimidation ``hostile acts ... certainly in the realm of the genocide.''

These killings amount to ``an act of war,'' says Panos Moumtzis, a regional spokesman here for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Such violence ``would lead definitely to more and more hostility from the two sides.''

Fresh efforts are under way by the UN and the Rwandan government to make it easier for the refugees to come home. And for the first time in the current crisis, the number of people returning to Rwanda is greater than the number still leaving, Ambassador Khan says.

An estimated 3,000 refugees are returning daily, primarily from camps around Goma, Zaire, while 1,000 to 1,500 are still fleeing, according to UNHCR.

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Most of those still leaving are fleeing southern Rwanda, where there have been recent reports of killings by Hutu militia, soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), or both, UN officials say.

Khan says getting refugees and Rwanda's internally displaced settled back into their homes are his top priorities.

The refugee question is ``the big problem of Rwanda,'' says one relief official here.

Recent developments aimed at ensuring that more refugees can return home safely include:

* Efforts at talks this week between the new government and the government of Zaire, host to more than half of the Rwanda refugees. But the talks this week have been postponed so far; no agreements have been reached.

* Nearly 150 UN human rights observers scheduled to arrive in Rwanda during September to monitor, among other things, the safety of returning refugees. Fewer than five monitors are presently in Rwanda.

* Possible UN effort to seek Zaire's agreement to placing some UN human rights observers in the refugee camps as a deterrent to more intimidation, Khan says. He hopes Zaire will ``separate the wolf from the sheep'' in the camps, isolating troublemakers and the Army from civilians who might want to come home.

* Land provided by the Zairean government for a separate camp in Zaire for members of the defeated Rwandan Army, according to Mr. Moumtzis. Rwandan soldiers, still in uniform, mingle in large numbers among civilian refugees and are blamed by UN officials for intimidating refugees from going home. But no plans have been made to protect refugees who want to return from such intimidation and violence.

Some recent returnees, however, included members of the defeated Army. On Aug. 30, for example, 114 soldiers, including three majors, returned to Rwanda, Khan says. ``It's not a bad start.''

The RPF has made it clear that anyone who did not participate in the genocide in Rwanda is free to come back safely, including members of the Army. The government is more suspicious of the former presidential guard and various Hutu militia, which are accused of masterminding most of the killings of Tutsi and Hutu moderates.

Officials of the new government admit that some of their soldiers may have murdered civilians in Rwanda. About 60 RPF soldiers are now in custody for various offenses, including suspected murder, Khan was told by the RPF.

``There have been cases of retribution and revenge'' killings by the RPF, he told reporters here last week. But ``there is no evidence of a preordained pattern of executions.''

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