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Rwandan refugee tide swells

18,000 per hour cross border from Tanzania

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December 16, 1996
Web posted at: 2:00 p.m. EST (1900 GMT)

KIGALI, Rwanda (CNN) -- Thousands of Rwandan refugees who had resisted returning to their homeland from Tanzania were pouring across the border Monday.

Red Cross officials told CNN some 18,000 refugees an hour were crossing a narrow bridge over the Kagera River into Rwanda from Tanzania. As many as 200,000 refugees were expected to cross the border Monday.

Of the 150,000 to 200,000 refugees in line to cross the border, about half were from the Kitali Hills camp and nearby areas. And at least 50,000 were from the Benaca camp.

Nowhere to go but home

The refugees started streaming back into Rwanda again at dawn as Tanzanians reopened the border after closing it for part of the night.


Most of the refugees fled from Rwanda to Tanzania in 1994, when more than a million Rwandan Hutus scattered into neighboring countries. The refugees feared retribution for a Hutu-led genocide of at least 500,000 minority Tutsis.

But with their camps cleared by Tanzanian authorities and passage away from Rwanda blocked, they had nowhere else to go.

Hundreds of lost children

Some refugees said Tanzanian troops used batons and fired tear gas and gunshots into the air to force them out of the bush and onto the road. The claims have not been verified.

By Monday, more than 200 children had been separated from their parents in the crush. A U.N. official said the total could reach 1,000 by the end of the day.

Mothers were given pieces of yellow string by the Red Cross so they could tie themselves to their children in the lines snaking towards Rwanda.

Drinking water, vital in the equatorial heat of December, is said to be in short supply because tankers cannot pass along the road.

Screening for fugitives

On the Rwandan side, the column of refugees narrows after crossing the bridge. The refugees are continuing along the road through the hills to a transit camp, where the identity of some was said to have been checked by Rwandan authorities.

The mass-repatriation nearly matches in scale the dramatic return of more than 300,000 Hutu refugees from Zaire last month, marking a closing chapter in a refugee crisis that has dominated Rwanda's political environment for the past two years since the end of the genocide of Tutsis.

The crucial question of what will happen to Rwandan Hutu militiamen remains. Tanzanian authorities arrested 50 militiamen Monday and took them to a camp in Mwezi, northeast of the Ngara refugee camp area, according to Paul Stromberg, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in Kigali.

Judith Melby of the UN Commission
on Refugees comments from Tanzania
icon (272K/25 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

African leaders were to meet Monday in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss regional problems, including the instability in Zaire, the political and ethnic violence in Burundi and the refugees' return to Rwanda.

International Correspondent Catherine Bond contributed to this report.


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