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KIGALI, 15 June (IRIN) - The Rwandan government has dismissed as baseless claims by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, that Rwanda and Burundi had violated their obligations under international refugee law by forcefully repatriating thousands of Rwandans from Burundi, whom they labelled illegal immigrants.
"Most of these people were running away [to Burundi] fearing charges in the local Gacaca courts and it is not in the mandate of UNHCR to accept such a group of people," Protais Musoni, Rwanda's minister for local government, told IRIN on Wednesday.
Annan and UNHCR criticised the repatriation on Tuesday, saying Rwanda and Burundi had violated the UN's 1951 convention on refugees, which calls on states to respect the rights of such people.
However, Musoni said the repatriation was done in the presence of UNHCR officials, and that these officials had acknowledged that the exercise was being conducted voluntarily after a sensitisation campaign by government officials and the local population.
In its statement, UNHCR said Rwanda and Burundian officials had denied them access to the Songore transit site, in Burundi's northern province of Ngozi, where the Rwandans had been gathered. It said the two countries went ahead with the repatriation "despite repeated calls for restraint" and for the finding of a constructive solution.
Musoni said the UNHCR had considered the Rwandans as asylum seekers when they were fugitives fleeing justice in the country's Gacaca courts - a justice system Rwanda introduced to expedite trials for those suspected of involvement in the 1994 genocide.
He added that the government would not question the returnees and would, instead, help them to resettle in their homes. Most of the returnees were transported by trucks to their homes in the Rwandan province of Butare.
At the same time, Musoni said the Rwandan government would transport the relatives, friends and neighbours of Rwandans who remained in Burundi, in a bid to sensitise them to return home.
Regarding some 7,000 Burundians in Rwanda, who the two government also declared to be illegal immigrants, Musoni said he would encourage them to return home if Burundian authorities came to persuade them to leave Rwanda.
"I would have no problem if the Burundian authorities came to mobilise their people to return, I would encourage that," Musoni said.
The Rwandan asylum seekers began arriving in Burundi in March, citing fears over the Gacaca tribunals trying genocide cases.
The 1994 killing in Rwandan claimed the lives of at least 937,000 people - mostly Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus. Thousands of genocide cases are pending before national regular court and Gacaca - based on a traditional justice system - was introduced to speed up the trials for hundreds of thousands of other suspects.
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