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FEARFUL REFUGEES REJECT U.N. PLEAS TO RETURN HOME

SHARE FEARFUL REFUGEES REJECT U.N. PLEAS TO RETURN HOME

U.N. aid officials met with elders and community leaders of the nearly 1 million Rwandan refugees who have fled to Zaire but failed to persuade them it was safe to return to their farms and homes.

The meeting Tuesday was "very unsuccessful," Ray Wilkinson, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said Wednesday. "It's going to be a massive effort to convince them."Wilkinson said an estimated 22,000 refugees from the camps near Goma had returned to Rwanda through official border crossing points. As many as 90,000 may have returned through the bush, he said.

But that is a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands packed in squalor in the camps, who are dying by the hundreds every day of cholera, dysentery and other dis-eases.

Maj. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, commander of U.N. forces in Rwanda, speaking Wednesday in Kigali, the capital, said the returning refugees have slowed to a trickle.

Most of the refugees in Zaire are Hutus, the ethnic majority, who fled Rwanda in fear of retribution from a Tutsi-led rebel army for the slaughter of at least 350,000 people, mainly Tutsis, from April to July. The United Nations and human rights groups blame the massacres on the Rwandan army and civilian militias guided by extremist Hutus.

No reports have surfaced of large-scale revenge killings by the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front, which has established a new government in Kigali. It has repeatedly said innocent Hutus have nothing to fear in returning home.

But remnants of the defeated Rwandan army and some Hutu politicians are spreading rumors in the Zairian camps, telling the refugees that the Tutsis will gouge out their eyes and slit open their bellies if they recross the border.

The fictions, said Wilkinson, are stronger than truth.

Wilkinson said he hoped his agency would be able to take some elders and community leaders back across the border on a tour to prove to them that it is safe for their people to return.

In the squalid camps, the refugees are dying at a rate of 600-700 a day, he said. That's down from 800-900 two days ago, and far fewer than the 1,800-2,000 who were dying each day early last week.

But, Wilkinson added, "all signs are that dysentery is on the rise, so this may be only a temporary drop in deaths."

More than 22,000 have died since the crisis began two weeks ago, and although governments and aid agencies have made progress in stemming the deaths, much more is needed.

The French military has lowered its estimate of the number of refugees in the Goma region to 890,000. The UNHCR had estimated 1.2 million refugees were in the area.

With the arrival of the first American trucks in Zaire, U.S. Army convoys delivered more than 100,000 gallons of water daily to the gruesome Kibumba camp, where more than 250,000 Rwandans have taken refuge.

Five Army tractor-trailers hauling 3,000 gallons each shuttled back and forth between the Army water-purification plant on the shore of Lake Kivu in Goma to the camp about 20 miles north.

The U.S. Air Force landed eight jumbo cargo jets at Goma's single-strip airport, carrying four bigger American trucks able to carry 5,000 gallons each and nine water trucks donated by Finland.

The U.S. Army's 10 water pumps and chlorinators can produce a half-million gallons a day. But the United Nations estimates the refugees around Goma need 1.25 million gallons, more if they are to keep clean - essential for preventing disease.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Reopening

The U.S. Embassy in Kigali reopened Wednesday for the first time since April 10, when a genocidal rampage caused most foreigners to leave.