Soldiers expelled 3,000 Rwandan refugees Tuesday and marched 8,000 others toward their homeland as Zaire ignored international protests and stepped up the forced repatriation of refugees.
As many as 60,000 other refugees have fled their camps along Zaire's eastern border into surrounding hills to avoid being sent home.While thousands of refugees were being herded out or fleeing, gunfire was reported at some of the refugee camps Tuesday. It was not clear who was shooting or if there were any casualties.
Zaire began expelling the refugees Saturday, but Tuesday's forced exodus was by far the largest. Officials have given no explanation, but aid workers say Zaire is trying to pressure the United Nations to find another country to take the refugees.
With nine countries along its border, Zaire has the largest refugee population in the world - an estimated 1.8 million people, about 1 million of them Rwandans who fled after massacres in their country last year.
At the southern edge of Lake Kivu, some 11,000 Rwandan refugees were expelled Tuesday from the Zairian city of Bukavu. Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said 3,000 were forced back into Rwanda, and 8,000 more had been marched to the border.
The Bukavu area is home to more than 300,000 Rwandan refugees.
U.N. refugee agency workers were sent Tuesday to Cyangugu, on the Rwandan side of the border across from Bukavu, to care for the arriving refugees.
Zairian soldiers enforcing expulsion orders "went wild" Monday night at the Magunga camp near Goma, U.N. refugee agency spokesman Ron Redmond said Tuesday in Geneva, citing agency employees at the camp.
Soldiers and some refugees torched their huts, setting off fires in wide areas of the camp, Redmond said.
Kessler said up to 60,000 people without food or safe water have fled into the hills. "This could bring about a repeat of the deaths we saw last summer," he said.
An estimated 50,000 refugees died of cholera and other diseases in Goma in the weeks that followed the panicked exodus of 1.2 million refugees from Rwanda in July 1994.