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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

UN Issues Radio Appeals As Zaire-Tutsi Fight Rages

BUKAVU, Zaire -- The UN refugee agency tried on Friday to coax home hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees in eastern Zaire as heavy shelling rocked the city of Uvira.

Residents of the Burundian capital Bujumbura, 30 kilometers to the east, said they heard blasts from Uvira overnight and on Friday morning from fighting between Zairean troops and Tutsi rebels.

"It was almost certainly mortar fire because of the sound of the rockets," said a senior aid worker, adding it was unclear if it was a push by Tutsi Banyamulenge rebels to seize the city.

Aid officials fear the Tutsi rebellion in eastern Zaire could spread further and Tutsi-dominated armies in neighboring Burundi and Rwanda could join the conflict.

Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko is in Switzerland, receiving chemotherapy after an operation for cancer in August, fuelling fears the revolt might herald the break up of Zaire.

The Banyamulenge, who came to what is now Zaire from Rwanda as long ago as the late 18th century, say they are fighting for the return of their property and Zairean citizenship, which was denied to them in 1981.

Aid officials said the South Kivu provincial capital of Bukavu was quiet overnight after rebel advances prompted fearful Zairean soldiers to withdraw in confusion and seize aid agency vehicles.

A CARE aid agency vehicle was stolen in the city on Friday apparently by Zairean soldiers trying to evacuate themselves and their families from Bukavu, which Tutsi rebels say is besieged.

"I am deeply saddened that once again you are on the roads fleeing for your lives," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, Sadako Ogata in a message broadcast by radio to the nearly 300,000 refugees to flee violence in the last week.

"This terrible situation may not stop immediately, and I would like you to know that we will do everything possifle, in cooperation with the authorities to help you where we can," she added.

But some aid workers said only outright fear, hunger and a lack of anywhere else to flee rather than a UNHCR radio message would prompt large numbers to move east despite a flurry of diplomatic efforts to head off a new disaster in eastern Zaire.

They said a UN meeting in Bukavu on Friday considered a plan to send high protein biscuits and water to some refugees but it would be hard to implement as long as aid agency field workers were restricted to the capital because of insecurity.

"Because of your current ordeal, I am sure you will consider where you will be safer --in Rwanda or Zaire. That is a decision for you to make," said Ogata, speaking from Geneva.