Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Hutu men, women and children were killed Saturday at an overcrowded camp in southwest Rwanda by government troops and in stampedes, foreign aid officials said.
Kibeho camp was plunged into chaos from Friday night with troops repeatedly shooting, panic-stricken refugees stampeding and the estimated 80,000 Hutus packed into the camp clashing.Aid workers said the killing Saturday started before dawn when Hutus in the camp ringed by troops slashed each other with machetes in disputes. It accelerated when troops repeatedly opened fire.
"We're talking of hundreds killed and obviously hundreds wounded, but no one has been able to make an exact count in the confusion," said Patrick McCormick of the U.N. Children's Fund.
Asked if thousands died, an official of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said, "It could well be."
The U.N. special envoy to Rwanda said he was shocked at the deaths and condemned the killing of unarmed civilians.
A U.N. statement quoted special envoy Shaharyar Khan as stressing that the United Nations had consistently advised against the use of force to resolve humanitarian crises.
It said Saturday's tragedy began when some IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) attempted to break through the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) cordon around Kibeho Camp.
"While attempts were being made to control this breakout, other points of the cordon were breached resulting in a large number of IDPs fleeing the camp. The RPA resorted to firing to control the breakout, and as a result a large number of IDPs were killed and wounded."
In the afternoon, a Reuters journalist counted between 200 and 300 dead from the violence since Friday night but was unable to reach the worst part of the camp because roads were clogged by bodies of Hutus lying three-deep.
About 100 of the bodies he saw had been shot but the majority had been trampled to death in the stampedes sparked by firing, but in the complete chaos it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of dead, which could even reach thousands.
Aid workers trying to bring in medicine to treat the wounded also had to stop because the roads were full of bodies.
Shooting started at about noon when rain began, and the mass of refugees tried to take cover. Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) troops fired directly into the frightened crowd for an hour.
Hundreds were killed as the refugees stampeded under fire.
"Rain started and it looked like people were trying to seek shelter," said a U.N. official. "A couple of shots were fired into the crowd and people started dying. Immediately afterward there was a mass panic. Everyone ran. The massacre had started."
Troops also bayoneted to death refugees they caught in the ruins of the camp as they tried to escape from the mayhem.
U.N. helicopters evacuated more than 23 seriously wounded to the capital Kigali and southern town of Butare, but aid officials said they were only a small fraction of those who needed help.
Rwanda's now Tutsi-dominated army moved in Tuesday to close the camp and pin down Hutus they believe took part as militiamen in last year's genocide of up to a million people, mainly Tutsis.
They fled there last year afraid of revenge by the Tutsi-dominated RPA after it overthrew the Hutu-led government that presided over the slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Up to 22 were killed and 40 wounded Thursday night by RPA fire, fighting among the refugees and panicked stampedes.
The government in Kigali says it must close the nine camps in southwest Rwanda, which house up to 250,000 Hutus, because Hutu hard-liners who carried out the three-month genocide are regrouping there and using them as training grounds.
The Reuter reporter saw one army soldier approach a woman crawling through the remains of the camp. He bayoneted her once and she struggled on, he bayoneted her again and she kept moving so he finished her off.
Dead babies were lying by the side of the road. Living babies were crawling along deserted by their mothers while RPA soldiers picked through piles of belongings abandoned by their owners.
Heavy shooting again raged at about 5 p.m. when thousands of the displaced broke through the RPA cordon and fled down the hillsides with troops firing at them.
The RPA soldiers were shooting them down indiscriminately.
"The killing started around 4 a.m. when the displaced started macheting each other. We had a lull until midday and then with the gunshots there have been many dead. I cannot say how many," said Australian U.N. Dr. Carol Vaughan-Evans.
Makeshift medical centers were overwhelmed by the number of casualties and each seriously wounded Hutu who was selected to be evacuated by helicopter had to be individually cleared by the RPA.
U.N. helicopters were unable to land at the camp until late in the afternoon because of the continued anarchy and shooting.