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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Rwandan Exodus From Southwest Feared

KIGALI -- Thousands of Rwandan refugees began moving toward Zaire from southwest Rwanda on Friday, raising fears they were the start of a second exodus.

Aid agency officials in the Rwandan capital said refugees living on roadsides around Gikongoro town at the eastern edge of a French-protected "safe zone" in the southwest packed their belongings and were leaving the region on foot and by car.

The officials, who declined to be identified, said the movement Friday from Gikongoro was larger than Thursday when an estimated 2,000 refugees in cars drove west.

"We don't want to start a panic as refugees in the camps haven't moved yet but our colleagues in Gikongoro say a large number, thousands, are leaving towards Zaire," an official said.

Another quoted French army officers as saying 600 refugees every hour were entering Nyungwe forest, 20 kilometers west of Gikongoro, 80 kilometers east of the border with Zaire.

They said it appeared the refugees would go to the east Zairean town of Bukavu but that it was too early to say if this exodus was on the same scale as the nearly 1 million refugees who flooded into the Goma area four weeks ago.

UN force commander Major General Romeo Dallaire said this week that as many as 1 million refugees and 1.5 million local residents in the French-held zone could flee toward Bukavu.

A new influx of refugees into Bukavu, which like Goma has few sites suitable for large numbers of refugees, would serve members of the ousted Rwandan government who have fled.

The former self-declared Hutu government and its defeated army in exile are telling refugees they will be killed if they return to their homes despite UN assurances it is safe.

The refugees are nearly all members of the Hutu majority. Hutu government militiamen and troops slaughtered more than 500,000 members of the Tutsi minority and Hutu opponents during the three-month war the Tutsi-dominated rebels won last month.

The UN and aid agencies have been scrambling this week to send food and UN troops to the Gikongoro area in a campaign to prevent another refugee flood before all French troops leave the safe zone when their UN mandate expires on Aug. 22.

"We pray the people in the camps stay put but this is a bad sign 10 days before the French pullout," an aid official said.

An estimated 500,000 refugees are in the Gikongoro area.