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Refugees flee fighting in eastern Zaire

October 21, 1996
Web posted at: 12:30 p.m. EDT (1630 GMT)

(CNN) -- An estimated quarter of a million Rwandan refugees have abandoned their camps to flee an escalation of fighting in eastern Zaire, the U.N. refugee agency said Monday.

crowd of refugees

The latest fighting began a few days ago when the Banyamulenge, an ethnic Tutsi group, refused orders from Zaire to leave the Uvira region.

On Sunday, a large, unidentified force crossed into Zaire from Rwanda near Goma and attacked Zairian troops, relief workers said. But a spokesman for Rwanda's Tutsi-led army denied that the incursion took place.

"If these people (the Banyamulenge) are picking up arms and helping themselves, that is one thing," said Maj. Wilson Rutayisire. "But we are not involved in operations."

Representatives of the U.N. High Commission on Refugees said they had "unconfirmed reports" of dead and wounded from the fighting. UNHCR spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume did confirm the death of one Zairian army officer and the wounding of a Zairian soldier along the border.

The Uvira region is south of Goma. Aid officials said many of the refugees appeared to be headed for poorly supplied camps in Burundi.

Zaire map

Violence in and around the camps has been on the upswing in recent months, and hundreds have been killed in conflicts between native Zairians and the various Hutu tribes in the area. The fighting has forced aid agencies to withdraw their personnel to safer areas.

The refugees encamped in the area are primarily Hutus who fled Rwanda after the Hutu government was overthrown and replaced by Tutsis. The Hutu-led government engaged in a systematic genocide of minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. Some 700,000 refugees live near Zaire's border with Rwanda.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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