Aid workers had just an hour of peace Monday to rescue 45 seriously wounded patients from a hospital that has repeatedly come under fire in the battle for the Rwandan capital.
The Red Cross had been waiting all night to make the transfer from its hospital in government-held territory to a safer facility in land controlled by rebels, keeping the patients on trucks as fighting swirled all around.Shells fell within 50 yards of U.N. trucks Sunday night.
"We were extremely lucky that none of the shells hit the hospital or the two ambulances," said U.N. military spokesman Maj. Jean-Guy Plante.
Philippe Gaillard of the International Committee for the Red Cross said the patients were kept on the trucks because he was uncertain when he would get assurances from rebels that it was safe to travel from government-held Kigali into rebel territory.
"Today we got the green light at 9:02 a.m. - we had just one hour for the evacuation," Gaillard said.
The ambulances headed from the hospital in central Kigali to King Faisal Hospital in rebel-held territory in eastern Kigali.
Hutu-controlled government forces are battling Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front rebels in the fighting that broke out after President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, died in a mysterious April 6 plane crash. Most of the 200,000 victims have been civilians from the minority Tutsi tribe massacred by radical Hutu militias.
The rebels control some two-thirds of the country and last week began a fierce push for the capital.
Overnight, the rebels pounded central Kigali with a heavy artillery barrage. A fire touched off by the shelling sent flames shooting into the air from Mount Kigali, a strategic peak that the rebels have been trying to capture.
Soldiers raced to the Red Cross hospital in cars and trucks to deliver civilians and soldiers wounded by the pounding shells, witnesses said.
The fighting died down just long enough Monday to permit the evacuation of patients from the Red Cross hospital.
Plans to evacuate other refugees were called off Monday because of the intensified struggle for the capital.
The United Nations had hoped to transfer about 300 refugees, mostly Hutus, from King Faisal Hospital in the rebel sector of the capital to Runda, 10 miles west of Kigali. But Runda has been targeted by rebel shelling.
If the Hutus cannot be moved, the United Nations refuses to move another 300 people, mostly Tutsi children, from St. Michel Cathedral in government territory to Kabuga, 10 miles east of Kigali.
"We have to be seen by the civilian population that we are not helping one side more than the other," Plante said.
U.N. commander Maj. Gen. Romeo Dallaire linked the increase in fighting in Kigali to the arrival of French peacekeepers in western Rwanda. Paris says its mission is strictly humanitarian, but it has supported the government in the past, and the rebels fear the French troops will again rob them of victory.