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Fear of Reprisals in Rwanda Is Growing : Africa: Reports of attacks on returning refugees filter back to camps. Kigali regime renews pledge to provide safety, U.S. says.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even as the stakes for hundreds of thousands are rising, even as a whole season of crops is ripening and threatening to rot in the fields of Rwanda, the most important question for refugees cannot be answered.

Are they safe going home to Rwanda?

In the last three days, a swirl of fresh rumors has swept the refugee camps here: Ethnic Hutus are facing retaliatory attacks when they try to return home after their bitter civil war with the minority Tutsis.

The reports are isolated but are becoming more widely believed. And they come as Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, toured the small U.S. military assistance effort here Sunday and stressed that the United States remains committed to avoiding any peacekeeping role in Rwanda. “The U.S. is not going to get involved,” he said.

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Until recently, the stories of retaliation were largely dismissed as a cruel manipulation by politicians and militias from the defeated government who want to keep control over more than 2 million Rwandans who have fled to the refugee camps here and to the southwestern corner of Rwanda, where their security is temporarily guaranteed by French troops.

But in the last few days, Western journalists have come to believe that there is more to the reports. Although their accounts are still second- and third-hand, refugees are increasingly being taken at their word when they say they know of a brother or an aunt who was attacked upon returning.

On Sunday, John Shattuck, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, added credibility to the accounts, offering this preliminary conclusion after a visit to Rwanda and Zaire: “There have been some isolated attacks, and we’re very concerned about this.”

Shattuck hastened to add that he has no solid evidence of renewed killing in Rwanda. And he said he had received a fresh pledge from Rwanda’s new government that it condemns any reprisals against returnees.

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Such attacks would hardly be surprising. In the unimaginably morbid statistics of this war, the losing Hutu majority--and specifically its Interhamwe militia--is accused of butchering up to half a million Rwandans, mostly Tutsis, between April and last month, when their forces were routed from the country. And in a culture in which ethnic rivalries have existed for generations, vengeance is a deeply rooted tradition.

But repatriation is the only lasting hope that officials can offer to 900,000 refugees encamped in squalor and disease here and the more than 1 million others who are uprooted and threatening to flee southwestern Rwanda if their shield of French troops leaves Aug. 22 as scheduled.

So far, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 100,000 refugees have left the camps in Zaire and begun the trek home. Weakened and on foot, many face a walk of five days or more.

Refugee agency officials continue to say they have no evidence of attacks on returnees and continue to try to entice them home with promises of food, soap and blankets to be distributed en route. And for the first time, a fleet of 42 trucks was deployed on the roads of Rwanda on Sunday to assist those who need transportation home.

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An agency-sponsored radio station established for refugees said it plans to broadcast testimonials from Hutus who returned and were not harmed.

But the agency here stopped far short of guaranteeing the safety of refugees once they get home. Spokesman Panos Moumtsis noted that the first thing each refugee faces upon returning is a border guard and registration process.

“It’s a psychological barrier, and it’s causing a lot of fear,” Moumtsis said.

The victorious Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front has listed three priorities regarding the Hutu refugees. It has welcomed them home in hopes of bringing in the crops before the rainy season begins at the end of the month or early in September. But it also said the sick should not be rushed out of the camps to spread disease in Rwanda. And lastly, it is demanding punishment for those responsible for the slaughter of Tutsis.

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At meetings in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, over the weekend, U.S. officials said they had received assurances that a U.N. tribunal would be given jurisdiction over any genocide investigation rather than leaving justice to the Tutsi leaders.

“I’m pleased to say they committed themselves to that process,” the State Department’s Shattuck said after meeting with Paul Kagame, the leader of the successful revolt and now vice president and defense minister.

A three-member panel of African judges has already been appointed under the International Court of Justice to begin the difficult process of identifying those responsible for the bloody rampage.

Shalikashvili traveled to Kigali on Sunday for talks with the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The general reviewed the troops here earlier in the day--joining a parade of notable Americans that threatens to become as big as the military operation itself.

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He flew in with Tipper Gore, the wife of Vice President Al Gore, and an entourage of escorts. Their arrival came on the heels of a visit by the thundering African American civil rights leader Al Sharpton and just before an advertised visit by singer Harry Belafonte.

About 1,500 U.S. troops are now engaged in the relief effort in Goma, in Kigali and in Entebbe, Uganda. Shalikashvili praised the troops but expressed new impatience for a U.S. withdrawal.

“I don’t look at this as a long-term commitment,” he said, adding that he hopes U.S. water treatment facilities and other chores could be turned over to private contractors and “permit us to disengage fairly soon. . . . I see us here shorter rather than longer.”

Just a week ago, Defense Secretary William J. Perry visited the region and said U.S. troops could be here “a year or more” offering humanitarian assistance. And that followed President Clinton’s pledge of “immediate and massive” aid.

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In southwestern Rwanda, French troops are preparing their pullout and are being replaced by U.N. peacekeepers. But many Hutus who have crowded into the region from their homes farther north said they do not trust the United Nations to protect them and are poised to flee across the border.

The refugees are already desperately hungry, and aid workers said they are only just beginning to send significant supplies into the region. And if the Rwandans choose to bolt en masse across the border, another outbreak of catastrophic disease and death looms.


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