Thousands Of Hutu Rebels Flee

News and Press Release
Originally published
By KARIN DAVIESAssociated Press Writer
CIBITOKE, Burundi (AP) -- Up in the sun-browned hills, the rebels hide. Down below, in a town protected by soldiers, tension among thousands is easing.

For weeks, members of the minority ethnic Tutsis have lived in fear of rebel attacks on villages in Cibitoke Province and the 40-mile road that leads into town from the capital of Bujumbura.

Hutu rebels camped in mountains to the east and in Zaire to the west have frequently launched attacks and cut off electricity to Bujumbura by toppling pylons.

Now, a week after the Tutsi-led military coup, it is the rebels who are fearful. There are reports that more than 1,000 majority Hutus a day are suddenly stampeding to Zaire, frightened of a future under a new Tutsi president.

Nonetheless, Cibitoke's central market was lively Wednesday as both Tutsis and Hutus turned out in larger numbers than usual to buy and sell tomatoes, casava and bananas among the wandering cows. Some organized a arch to show their support for President Pierre Buyoya.

Buyoya, installed in a quiet coup by the army last Thursday, has vowed to succeed where his predecessor, a Hutu, failed: A Tutsi army major and a former president, he says he has the authority to control Tutsi soldiers and to foster power-sharing to stop the fighting that has killed 150,000 people in three years.

Hutus make up about 85 percent of Burundi's 6 million people, but Tutsis, with their domination over the military and economy, control the country.

Most Burundians have stayed away from Cibitoke Province since 1993, when the first democratically elected Hutu president was assassinated, and fighting resumed.

United Nations agencies have not used the road that leads to the capital since unidentified gunmen ambushed and killed three Swiss nationals working for the International Committee of the Red Cross on June 4.

Plans to resume deliveries of relief supplies were canceled after PALIPEHUTU, one of several Hutu rebel groups, threatened to attack U.N. vehicles.

''It's one of the worst areas in Burundi,'' said aid worker Marilyn McDonagh. ''It's quite eerie.''

On Wednesday, the carcasses of two wrecked trucks -- one filled with shattered brown beer bottles and the other leaking puffs of cotton -- lay on the side of the road.

Pacifique Inamahoro, 18, said the area has been calmer since the coup.

''Before people were shooting in the road and everywhere. Now it's OK,'' said the student whose first name, in French, and last name, in Kirundi, both mean ''peace.''

''The former government was made up of politicians who hadn't mastered politics. They didn't understand the situation,'' Inamahoro said.

Joseph Sindakira, 25, agreed. ''This big man will be the peacemaker of Burundi,'' he said of Buyoya. ''He led the country to democracy. The regime before didn't manage the situation well.''

But at a camp for Tutsis who fled their hillside villages when fighting broke out in 1993, Nehemie Barutegrisa, 43, said he had little confidence in Buyoya's promise that one day everyone would be able to return to their homes.

''The rebels came to our village with machetes, grenades and guns,'' he said. ''They killed our families, burned our houses and our crops. We are still afraid.''

Stuffing newly plucked cotton scattered by unruly children back into a sack, Barutegrisa said he hopes for change in his tiny central African country. ''I want to go home. There is no life here,'' he said.

Jean-Paul Nahiya, 16, sat astride his bike outside the Cibitoke Military Camp, where soldiers man a guard post whose corrugated iron roof rattles in the wind.

''It's getting better here, bit by bit,'' he said. ''There are plenty of rebels hiding in the hills, but they are weak. Pigs.''

The soldiers said nothing but quietly shook their heads. Cibitoke is a risky post that few want.

The United Nations said more than 1,000 people have been fleeing from Cibitoke Province every day for the past two months to refugee camps in neighboring Zaire.

The U.N. Department of Humanitarian Affairs said it was the highest rate of flight since early May, when heavy fighting was reported in the area.

The new arrivals report continuing conflict in Cibitoke province, particularly in Mugina and Rugombo communes.

There are already 200,000 refugees in two camps, an increase of 50,000 in the past two months. The camps are expected to be full by the end of the week.

=A9 Copyright 1996 The Associated Press