In an ominous development threatening more than 100,000 Hutu refugees facing starvation and disease in eastern Zaire, rebel alliance officials Friday blocked the United Nations from starting an airlift to carry them back to Rwanda.
The refugees have been on the run since 1994 and are on their last legs, dying at a rate of about 60 a day. Officials of UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, believe it is imperative for the airlift to go ahead.
But rebel authorities who now control the major eastern city of Kisangani refused permission, saying that if refugees are brought into town to reach the only available airport, they will spread deadly cholera.
Rebel radio stations, meanwhile, have been broadcasting incendiary reports, whipping up anti-refugee feelings that contributed to riots Friday against the refugees.
UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler emphasized that there have been no cases of cholera in the Biaro camp, 25 miles south of Kisangani, from which the first group of 80 refugee children was to be airlifted. The cholera that has been detected in another camp is a mild strain and could be easily controlled, he added.
Using a small fleet of Russian-made Ilyushin and U.S.-made C-130 transport planes, U.N. officials have been rushing to organize what could become the largest civilian emergency airlifts in history.
Some of the refugees, who are a remnant of the massive exodus of ethnic Hutus from Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, have walked more than 400 miles in six months and are too weak to survive a trek home.
Many of the rebels are ethnic Tutsis who detest the refugees as part of Rwanda’s former Hutu community responsible for the genocide, which killed more than a half-million Tutsis in Rwanda in a period of two months.
Other Zaireans view the refugees as little more than interlopers, foraging for food and stealing their crops.