Citing a deadly surge of attacks on humanitarian aid groups, the United Nations withdrew hundreds of expatriate and Rwandan relief workers from western Rwanda in armed convoys Wednesday and sharply curtailed operations in the rest of this increasingly tense country.
The emergency pullout from four provinces followed the brutal ambush Tuesday of five U.N. human rights staff members, including a veteran British aid worker who was shot to death, a Cambodian field officer who was beheaded with a machete and three Rwandan assistants who were shot or killed by grenades.
In all, suspected anti-government insurgents have killed six expatriates in less than three weeks in western Rwanda. They are the first foreigners to be slain here since the end of ethnic genocide and a murderous civil war in 1994 drew thousands of aid workers to help rebuild the shattered Central African nation.
U.N. officials and others suspect the attacks--which have “shocked and dismayed” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan--are part of a coordinated effort by ethnic Hutu extremists to drive out foreign relief workers and to destabilize the Tutsi-dominated regime in Kigali, the capital.
Rwanda’s security has deteriorated dramatically since the mass return of an estimated 555,000 ethnic Hutu refugees from camps in eastern Zaire in mid-November and the forced repatriation a month later of about 473,000 Hutu refugees from camps in Tanzania.
Several hundred Rwandans have been killed in a wave of reprisal attacks and violence since then. They include scores of Tutsi survivors of the genocide who were hunted down to prevent them from testifying at the country’s newly launched genocide trials or at the international tribunal on Rwandan war crimes based in Arusha, Tanzania.
The attacks on foreigners began in mid-December with a series of assaults, armed robberies and threats against international aid workers in several parts of the country.
Then, on Jan. 18, two Spanish doctors and a Spanish nurse from Doctors of the World were shot to death in their home in Ruhengeri province after a robbery. Nitin Madhav, an American working with them, was badly wounded, and doctors later amputated his left leg.
Last Sunday, a resident Canadian priest was slain as he was giving Communion to his congregation in rural Ruhengeri. Two days later, the five human rights staff members were ambushed with machine guns and grenades as they drove two clearly marked U.N. vehicles on a remote road in southeastern Cyangugu province.
“These men died serving this country,” Omar Bakhet, U.N. coordinator for Rwanda, told several hundred people who gathered for an emotional eulogy at the Kigali airport late Wednesday. “Theirs was a noble job.”
The bodies of Graham Turnbull, 36, a British human rights team leader who worked in Rwanda for two years, and Sastra Chim-Chan, 34, a Cambodian field officer in charge of U.N. justice programs in Cyangugu province since last March, were then loaded on a plane for Nairobi, Kenya.
In a written statement, Bakhet said all U.N. aid workers and international relief groups were being “temporarily withdrawn” to Kigali from Cyangugu, Kibuye, Gisenyi and Ruhengeri provinces for “consultations on security matters.”
Officials declined to speculate when the aid groups could return to the provinces. The only organization to stay in the area was the International Committee of the Red Cross, but its delegates were confined to their compounds pending further review, spokesman Anselmo Josue said.
“Now is the time for reflection,” he said. “Obviously this is quite serious.”
The U.N. also ordered all nonessential personnel in other provincial capitals to return to Kigali, leaving only skeleton staff in place under a strict dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Some groups, including UNICEF, barred all staff travel outside Kigali.
“The fact that these things have happened one after another has left people grasping for explanations,” said Paul Stromberg, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “But with six foreigners killed in three weeks, we’re looking at more than coincidence.”
Officials said the withdrawal of aid groups from western Rwanda is unlikely to jeopardize lives since most aid projects here are aimed at long-term development and rehabilitation, not crisis intervention. Food supplies, medicine and other basic commodities are not affected.
“This is a security emergency,” said John Keys, director of the International Rescue Committee. “Rwanda is not in a humanitarian emergency. . . . A lot of the services that will be stopped will cause inconveniences. I don’t think they’re life threatening.”
Rwandan officials blamed the attacks on Hutu insurgents opposed to the Tutsi-controlled government.
“I am disgusted at these attacks. The government will be issuing a statement later today condemning these thugs,” said Claude Dusaidi, advisor to Rwandan Vice President Paul Kagame. “But I don’t think the agencies should pull out of these areas. Instead they should give us more money for our security forces.”
A Western diplomat, however, theorized that the government may even welcome the withdrawal of a demanding thicket of groups they often accuse of being more meddlesome than helpful.
“I don’t think the government gives a damn if the U.N. and [nongovernmental groups] pull out,” he said. “Whether they’ll take advantage of their absence to go in and kill a lot of people, I don’t know.”
Several people have already been publicly killed by government troops.
On Dec. 10, three murder suspects were executed by soldiers at a rally in southeastern Gisenyi province. On Dec. 21, a recent returnee from Zaire who was suspected of killing a survivor of genocide and three other people was also executed by soldiers after a public rally in Gikongoro province.
“All four were shot dead at the demand of members of the local population and on the orders of [military] officers present at the public meeting,” noted a report last week by the U.N. human rights office here.
The worst known incident occurred Jan. 9 when local officials in part of Kibungo province told a group of new returnees from Tanzania to “go to a certain place where food was to be distributed,” according to another U.N. report. “At least 31 returnees were then beaten to death, killed by machetes or hanged.”