Burundi

6,000 Rwandan Refugees Return

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By CHRIS TOMLINSON Associated Press Writer
KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) -- More than 6,000 Rwandan refugees came home from Burundi on Thursday, in a weeklong exodus that has seen the largest voluntary return since they fled ethnic fighting in 1994.

''Everyone is trying to mobilize trucks to bring these refugees back. We are running three convoys today with about 40 trucks in each one,'' said Simona Opitz, spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, which is arranging transport.

Entire blocs of the Magara refugee camp in northern Burundi -- which generally replicate the refugees' home villages in Rwanda -- packed up and returned together, said Paul Stromberg, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.

The refugees in Burundi are among more than 2 million Hutus who left Rwanda when Tutsi-led rebels seized power in July 1994, ending months of systematic slaughter that killed a half-million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The Hutus feared retaliation if they returned to Rwanda. But their situation in Burundi has worsened: The Tutsi-led Burundi military forced out 15,000 refugees three weeks ago, and international sanctions imposed after a military coup two weeks ago blocked aid to the ones who remain.

''I think the uncertain political situation in Burundi and the positive reports they are getting back from refugees who have returned already is fueling the repatriation,'' Stromberg said.

''There has been a snowball effect, and we hope it will continue,'' he said.

Thursday's repatriation brings the number of refugees who have voluntarily returned since Aug. 1 to more than 14,000, he said. About 47,000 Rwandan refugees remain at two camps in northern Burundi, the officials said.

The refugees who fled to Burundi were mostly subsistence farmers from southern Rwanda who followed local leaders into exile. The rate of voluntary repatriation has always been highest from the Burundi camps.

In contrast, most of the former Rwandan army and Hutu politicians and government members took refuge in Zaire, where they use refugee camps as bases from which to attack Rwanda in a bid to regain power.

On Tuesday, the Rwandan army deployed 1,200 troops in the northern prefecture of Ruhengeri against Hutu fighters who had crossed over from Zaire.

Soldiers killed 19 suspected Hutu rebels and captured 84 more on Wednesday, Radio Rwanda said Thursday. U.N. human rights monitors said they received reports that more than 22 people died.

Rebel raids and government counterattacks have claimed hundreds of lives in recent months, most of them unarmed civilians.

=A9 Copyright 1996 The Associated Press