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ZAIRE'S REBELS HUNT RWANDAN REFUGEES.

Byline: Nicholas D. Kristof The New York Times

As he strode confidently down the red-clay road that parted the jungle, the young rebel soldier was perfectly candid about his mission.

``We're capturing the Rwandan refugees,'' he said placidly. ``We're catching them and killing them.''

Asked to repeat that, he elaborated without embarrassment.

``Every day we kill them,'' he said with a shrug. ``They fled, so they must be bad people. So we catch them and take them back to our commander, and then we kill them.''

The commander was less talkative. He declined to answer questions and instead interrogated a reporter and photographer before eventually allowing them to proceed - with a ban on photographs - on a five-day journey through this region of northeastern Zaire.

Villagers said no foreigners had been in the area for many months, for the one-lane dirt road that knifes through the jungle is on the front line of three intertwined wars.

The first war that one drives through after heading east from Kisangani, the dilapidated port on the Zaire River in the center of the country, is the fight of which the young rebel spoke: the efforts by the rebels to track down and kill hard-line Rwandan Hutus who are on the run from their own government and from the Alliance of Democratic forces for the Liberation of Congo, the rebel group that controls a growing share of Zaire.

These Rwandans are not the 80,000 or so on the outskirts of Kisangani who wanted to go home but who in recent days were driven from their camps by attacks.

Although most of the Rwandan refugees in Zaire are women and children, many of the men are former soldiers or militia members who took part in massacres of members of the Tutsi ethnic group in Rwanda nearly three years ago, and some had also been armed by Zaire's crumbling government to fight the alliance rebels. The rebels see them as guerrillas who are still combatants in Zaire's civil war.

Some of these hard-line refugees headed west, to the diminishing area that remains under the control of Zaire's government. But villagers and rebel fighters say thousands of these Rwandans are also trying to make their way east through the dense jungle of this region, so that they can return to Rwanda.

The rebels have set up a series of checkpoints along the 150 miles east of Kisangani to try to catch any of these Rwandans, and it was at one of the checkpoints that the rebel fighter made his comments. The rebels are young, some in their early teens, but they casually lug around their submachine guns, hand grenades and missile launchers as if they were toys.

As darkness settles on the jungle, fears grow about ambushes along the narrow road, and rebel sentries grow jumpy at their checkpoints, nervously fingering the triggers of their guns and easing their edginess by drinking, which adds to the apprehension of everyone else. People scurry to the safety of the towns, and a tense quiet endures until dawn.

Trucks carrying these rebels occasionally roared down the road, and at least one contained trussed-up men who apparently were Rwandans. But for all the talk of killings, a reporter saw no bodies or other firsthand evidence of massacres.

The rebel leaders consistently have denied killing any Rwandan refugees. Still, their rebel forces apparently see these hard-line Rwandans not just as refugees - although they use the word - but as guerrillas and legitimate targets.

Villagers said the refugees shot and killed two rebel fighters a few days ago near the town of Bafwasende, but mostly the Rwandans seem to be trying to lie low and make their way home through the bush.

``They have guns, but not very many,'' said another rebel near Bafwasende. ``Maybe a group of 20 of them will have one gun. We're not afraid.''

Villagers say these Rwandans sometimes appear at night, stealing food and clothing from farmers. Sometimes the Rwandans are said to have killed people, but mostly they just steal, the villagers say.

``They make even the women strip and take every bit of clothing with them,'' said the Rev. Sahmbo Kwangelele, a pastor in the village of Bwafabalinge east of Kisangani. ``We're afraid of them. We don't go deep in the bush for fear of running into them.''

Judging from what the villagers say, the refugees seem to be fairly well-organized. They are mostly many miles deep in the jungle, where there are no roads or villages, but they seem to have their bearings and to be heading steadily back toward Rwanda.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: Rwandan orphans rest Friday in the Zairian village of Kikongo, on the Congo River.

Associated Press
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 27, 1997
Words:785
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