Rwandan soldiers killed several hundred refugees who tried to break out of a camp in southwestern Rwanda on Saturday, a U.N. official said. It was the second day of bloodshed there in three days.
“People in the camps said there were bodies all over the place,” said Millicent Mutuli, spokeswoman for the U.N.-Rwanda Emergency Office. She couldn’t specify how many were killed, other than several hundred.
Details of the violence were sketchy and the death toll could not be confirmed, since bad weather stranded investigators flying by helicopter to the scene.
A Red Cross official in Kigali who said hundreds apparently had died also couldn’t be more specific. Other U.N. officials could confirm only 26 dead.
Mutuli said the violence involved at least two incidents in which Rwandan soldiers tried to move Hutu refugees out of the camp, near the town of Kibeho.
The new Tutsi-led Rwandan government began to close several camps in the area Tuesday, claiming they are sheltering militias loyal to the Hutu government ousted last year. But many refugees, afraid to return home, have resisted.
Mutuli said gunfire first broke out Saturday morning, then again in the afternoon. As of 8 p.m., she said, gunfire was still reported in the camp.
“At some point the displaced people tried to break through the soldiers’ cordon and the RPA (Rwandan Patriotic Army) tried to control this and there was shooting,” she said.
At one point, refugees broke through the cordon and soldiers attacked them as they fled, she said.
“When people were running away they were being fired upon,” Mutuli said. It was unclear whether the soldiers were trying to prevent the refugees from entering or fleeing the camp, she said.
Mutuli said there also may have been violence among the refugees Friday night, since doctors reported treating machete wounds in the morning. The reports did not specify how many people were wounded.
Officials did not know whether any of the dead were soldiers, or whether all were refugees killed by the army. Ismael Diallo, a U.N. spokesman in Kigali, said he would not be surprised if refugees had returned fire. He cited unconfirmed reports that elements of Rwanda’s former government had brought weapons into the camp.
On Thursday, Rwandan soldiers shot and killed 22 people and wounded 40 others at Kibeho when refugees tried to grab a soldier’s rifle.
The camps, initially set up by French troops, once housed 250,000 people. Most of the refugees are Hutus, who are afraid of reprisals by Tutsis for the massacres of about 500,000 people - mostly Tutsis - that began a year ago. The refugees fled last July when Tutsi-led rebels overthrew the Hutu-dominated government.
The French troops withdrew last August, and for months the government has been planning to make the refugees return home. The United Nations has supported the return efforts, but Mutuli stressed officials did not agree with the army’s methods.
“One cannot understand the violence that is being used,” she said.
Since Tuesday, an estimated 100,000 of the refugees at Kibeho have moved to a nearby hill, where there are no sanitation facilities.
Chris Bowers, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency in Kigali, said he didn’t know how many people remained in the area, but the agency had moved nearly 9,000 refugees by truck since Thursday.
Meanwhile, a newspaper reported Kenya expelled Rwanda’s top diplomat for unspecified reasons. Army Maj. Jacques Nziza left the country Friday, the Daily Nation reported, citing an unidentified foreign ministry official. Kenyan officials were unavailable for comment and nobody answered the telephone at Nziza’s home Saturday.
Relations between Kenya and Rwanda are strained because many top officials of Rwanda’s ousted government have settled in Kenya.