The Zairian rebel leader said Saturday an international relief effort for Rwandan refugees is pointless and that the people roaming eastern Zaire are mostly Zairians displaced by fighting.
Laurent Kabila spoke a day after 14 countries agreed to participate in a Canadian-led military relief mission to central Africa.
Kabila said most of the Rwandan refugees who fled to eastern Zaire in 1994 have gone home, and that the people spotted by foreign reconnaissance planes in the region were actually Zairians trying to escape fighting.
Western officials say at least 100,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees remain in the mountains of eastern Zaire.
The Rwandan refugees, mostly Hutus, had lived in U.N. aid camps in eastern Zaire until five weeks ago, when they vanished into the countryside to escape clashes between the rebels and Zairian soldiers. The refugees, mostly Hutu, had fled Rwanda 2-1/2 years ago, fearing retribution for the Hutu-led massacre of at least a half-million people Tutsis.
On Friday, the 14 countries agreed in Ottawa to participate in an aid operation, a scaled-down version of the multinational force proposed last month before hundreds of thousands of refugees began leaving Zaire on their own.
Diplomats agreed to establish a military headquarters in the Ugandan capital of Entebbe to run reconnaissance missions and possibly airdrops.
About 260 troops each from the United States and Canada are already in Entebbe, sharing makeshift headquarters in the airport terminal. Military transport aircraft that could be used for airdrops are also in Entebbe, about an hour’s flying time from eastern Zaire.
On Saturday, a Canadian military cargo plane from Entebbe carried cholera medicine to a refugee camp on Tanzania’s border with Zaire. The medicine would help prevent an outbreak among the refugees, said Tom Kaptyn of Doctors Without Borders, who asked for the airlift to Kigoma, Tanzania.
In all, about 20 countries, including the United States, Britain, France, South Africa, Spain, Senegal and Japan, are expected to provide support to the force, Canadian officials said.
Kabila is concerned that multinational forces in eastern Zaire could be used to impede his efforts to topple the government of President Mobutu Sese Seko, which says is corrupt and decadent.
“All this kind of intervention is purely politically motivated. We think the problem of refugees is over in this area,” said Kabila, who met Thursday with Canadian Lt. Gen. Maurice Baril, head of the international mission.
Still, he said, the rebels “have agreed to cooperate.”
Rwanda too has repeatedly questioned the need for the force, saying that the number of refugees in need in eastern Zaire has been vastly overstated.
Kabila said that Rwandan militia and Zairian forces were regrouping in Walikale, 90 miles northwest of the border city of Goma, and sending small units to infiltrate and destabilize rebel-held areas.
Walikale is one of two important towns remaining in Zairian government hands on the way to Kisangani, 300 miles northwest. Kabila claimed 10 days ago that his forces were headed towards Kisangani.
Kabila said Rwandan Hutu militia members were fierce fighters and that most of those encountered had been killed.
But he denied reports that his forces were committing massacres.
“We do not kill our citizens or even refugees,” he said. “We freed the refugees who were in the hands of killers, but not a single country has thanked us.”
He also told reporters the eastern Zaire territory his forces control would soon be named Democratic Congo. Zaire was called the Belgian Congo when it was under Belgian colonial administration. Upon independence in 1960, it became the Republic of the Congo. Mobutu changed the name to Zaire in 1971.
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