Zaire closed its only open border crossing with Rwanda Monday after the first 2,000 Rwandan refugees to pass over the newly opened bridge clogged the narrow road to Bukavu.
Authorities promised to reopen the span as soon as the refugees started moving toward camps.Several thousand refugees waited calmly for the bridge across the Rusizi River to reopen. Thousands more advanced on it in a steady stream from another bridge six miles north that Zaire closed Saturday.
Most of the refugees are ethnic Hutus who fear Tutsi revenge for massacres in Rwanda's 14-week-old civil war. Up to 500,000 people were slaughtered, most of them minority Tutsis killed by Hutu soldiers and militiamen.
The exodus has led to fears of a repeat of the refugee crisis in Goma, where nearly 1 million Rwandans poured across the border in three days last month. Some 43,000 died of malnutrition, cholera, dysentery and other illnesses.
The refugees fled ahead of Monday's deadline for French troops to withdraw from a safe area they established in Rwanda in June. The Rwandans don't trust U.N. peacekeepers replacing the French to protect them.
The northern bridge was shut because authorities were afraid the flow of refugees was out of control and could heighten the risk of deadly epidemics in the filthy, overcrowded camps housing 100,000 refugees in Bukavu, where cholera and dysentery have already been discovered.
The southern bridge had been closed for weeks and never was used by refugees seeking to escape Rwanda. It was only opened on Sunday after angry Rwandans stormed the closed northern bridge and clashed with Zairian soldiers who beat them back with canes and sticks.
The first few thousands to cross the southern bridge Monday dropped their bundles and built campfires along the road leading from the span.
In opening the southern bridge, Zaire had demanded that the United Nations truck the Rwandans from the border to a new camp seven miles outside Bukavu.
U.N. officials said it was impossible to get enough trucks to transport the tens of thousands waiting to cross the border. Today, the agency sent only a few trucks to transport people from the bridge to the new camp.
About 20,000 frightened men, women and children were moving toward the bridge, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said.
The spokesman, Ray Wilkinson, estimated that at least 45,000 would cross the bridge in the next few days, including thousands still en route from villages and towns in southwestern Rwanda.