A thousand Rwandan Hutus broke free from retreating Hutu militiamen in eastern Zaire to begin their long trek home Wednesday, and tens of thousands more also were on the move.
The U.N. World Food Program said 100,000 refugees were heading from Bukavu at the south end of Lake Kivu north toward Masisi, scene of reported fighting Wednesday between Hutu militias and Rwandan-backed Zairian rebels.
Refugees in Sake, halfway between Masisi and the border town of Goma, said they slipped away from the militiamen during the fighting.
In Goma on Wednesday, Zairian rebels fired a burst of anti-aircraft fire toward a U.S. reconnaissance plane as it flew over thousands of rebel supporters.
The Navy P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft was too high to be hit, the Pentagon said. The aircraft was on a routine mission in support of an advance U.S. force that may intervene to aid returning Rwandan refugees.
Until the refugees began their surprise exodus Friday, international aid agencies complained they had no way of knowing where the refugees had gone when they fled the more than 40 camps in eastern Zaire to escape fighting between rebels and the Zairian army.
Rwandan officials insisted Tuesday that an international intervention force was no longer necessary because hundreds of thousands of refugees had returned from their 2-1/2-year exile in Zaire.
But U.N. agencies report several hundred thousand Rwandan refugees remain in eastern Zaire.
Military officials from nations offering to join the 10,000- to 12,000-strong multinational force plan to meet Friday in Stuttgart, Germany, to decide the mission’s fate. The United States has promised up to 4,000 troops and $140 million to help the refugees.
The refugees who escaped from Masisi had left Katale camp north of Goma more than two weeks ago. The aid group Doctors Without Borders planned to truck them to the border with Rwanda, 15 miles east. From there, they will likely have to walk home.
In Goma, 10,000 people attended the rally in support of the rebels, who have routed the Zairian army from the eastern Kivu provinces and have pledged to overthrow President Mobutu Sese Seko.
Rebel commander Andre Kassasse urged the crowd to organize self-defense units and to tell rebel forces if they saw Zairian troops or their Rwandan Hutu militia allies.
The militias, largely responsible for the massacre of more than 500,000 people in Rwanda in 1994, fled refugee camps in front of the rebel onslaught, freeing hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees to head back to Rwanda.
Rebel leader Laurent Kabila had been expected to speak at the rally in Goma, but did not appear.
Some supporters waved banners of the Democratic Union for Social Progress, the party of former Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi, a contender to succeed Mobutu.
The Zairian and Tutsi-led rebels routed Zairian army troops Nov. 9, consolidating their hold on a 185-mile slice of Zaire that includes three key cities: Goma, Bukavu and Uvira.