Further delaying a massive U.N. airlift, rebel leaders insisted Saturday that Rwandan refugees travel home over land - an apparent tactic to force the United Nations to repair impassible roads in rebel-held territory.
“You shouldn’t link repatriation with rehabilitation of roads,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Paul Stromberg said. “To link the two means to postpone the repatriation for many, many months.”
The refugee agency had hoped to begin Africa’s biggest airlift last week, flying some of the 100,000 refugees from squalid camps near Kisangani to the Rwandan border.
The rebels first complained that an airlift would spread cholera, and next comandeered the refugee agency’s jet fuel. On Saturday, they claimed an airlift would clog local airports, essential to supplying towns the rebels have seized in their battle to unseat Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko.
“It is not possible to repatriate all the refugees by airlift,” said Emmanuel Kamanzi, a liaison officer for Laurent Kabila’s Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire. “It would mean our major airports will be closed to all but the refugees.”
Instead, the rebels want the UNHCR to airlift only the sick and exhausted, and to send the majority of the refugees home over land - a 300-mile trip on a narrow dirt road now thick with mud from rains. The roads would require extensive repairs before they could support trucks loaded with hundreds of people. And better roads would help the rebels.
While the trip is delayed, refugees are dying at the rate of 60 a day from malaria, dysentery, pneumonia, cholera and malnutrition, Stromberg said. In addition, sending refugees by land would cost more than the $50 million airlift.
On Saturday, aid agencies were to resume food supplies to the refugees. The effort was called off Friday, after hundreds of Zaireans stoned three foreign aid vehicles.