Responding to a firestorm of international criticism over his movement’s handling of Rwandan refugees, the Zairian rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, said Sunday he was giving the international community 60 days to evacuate the refugees from central Zaire.
Kabila issued his ultimatum after two days of meetings with senior international envoys and relief officials in the rebel-held northeastern city of Kisangani.
Last week, an estimated 85,000 severely weakened Rwandan Hutu disappeared from refugee camps south of Kisangani after reportedly being set upon by local villagers and by Kabila’s fighters, who are largely drawn from the Tutsi ethnic group, traditional enemies of the Hutu.
“This has gone on for too long and if it is not completed, we will do it ourselves,” Kabila said of the refugee crisis and evacuation during a news conference in Kisangani, after a day of meetings with senior U.N. and European Union officials. “I have given them 60 days to get this problem sorted out. It must be done.”
Kabila’s attempts to address the refugee crisis were seen as a response to criticisms from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and international relief agencies. They have accused the Zairian rebel forces of waging a campaign of “slow extermination” and “final solution” against the Rwandan Hutu refugees in Zaire.
Kabila, who has consistently denied that his forces have committed atrocities, complained bitterly that the United Nations had not done its job of protecting the refugees and demanded an apology from Annan.
Nonetheless, even Sunday, relief groups and journalists reported that Kabila’s forces had impeded their access to the heavily forested area south of Kisangani where the refugees are believed to be scattered.
Despite the restrictions, accounts by foreign journalists in Kisangani quoted witnesses who described attacks on the Hutu by both local Zairian villagers and troops from Kabila’s Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo.
Kabila’s trip to Kisangani and his high-profile involvement in the refugee issue dramatically illustrated the stakes involved.
In his first response to the outcry over the plight of the Hutu refugees, when he arrived in Kisangani late Saturday, Kabila told a local radio station that it was a “small problem.”
But Sunday’s statements indicated that Kabila has come to see the refugee crisis as the biggest of a series of problems that could seriously hinder his campaign for power just as a victory seemed at hand.
His six-month war has brought his fighters from the eastern edge of this vast country practically to the gates of Kinshasa, the capital, at the country’s western edge.
Until now, Kabila’s movement has enjoyed a largely benign image in the West and in many African countries as well, where it has often been seen as offering a hope for change and order to Zaire, brutally and ruinously ruled for nearly 32 years by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
The United States, in particular, has been seen as offering discreet but vital diplomatic support to Kabila, after long having served as Mobutu’s strongest backer.
But now Kabila’s forces are being accused of what the United Nations and international relief agencies have likened to a campaign of retaliatory genocide against the Hutu refugees in Zaire.