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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Zaire Shelling Spurs Aid Agency Scramble

BUKAVU, Zaire -- Shells exploded close to the eastern Zairean city of Bukavu overnight as aid agencies scrambled to help some of an estimated half a million people uprooted by fighting between Tutsi rebels and Zairean troops.

Journalists heard sporadic shooting in Bukavu overnight and some shelling to the southwest of the city.

"There was shooting here, there and everywhere and we heard soldiers going past in the night," said a resident of a district in southwest Bukavu, adding he did not know where to flee.

International aid agencies evacuated most of their staff Saturday from Bukavu, the South Kivu provincial capital, under threat of attack by advancing Banyamulenge Tutsi rebels.

The Banyamulenge rebels, from a 300,000-strong community that migrated from what is now Rwanda to Zaire up to 200 years ago, have already taken a string of towns south of Bukavu.

Reuters Television producer Tony Wende, just across the border from Bukavu in the Rwandan town of Cyangugu, said: "It appears to us that the town is hard-pressed by the Banymulenge. The gunfire is getting closer."

In the city of Goma, 140 kilometers north of Bukavu, aid workers said they planned to start distributing high protein biscuits to children, the old and the sick in Mugunga camp, swollen by 110,000 new refugee arrivals over the weekend.

"This is the emergency phase so we want to ensure there is enough water and food to avoid such diseases as cholera," said Panos Moumtzis, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR.

"There are also 10,000 Zaireans who arrived in Mugunga from a town near Kibumba camp, which was emptied by fighting on Friday night," Moumtzis said, adding that aid workers were doubling the cemetery capacity at Mugunga.

He said buses would be sent to Mugunga to carry back to Rwanda any refugees who wanted to go. The UN World Food Program said an estimated 700 Rwandan refugees and 3,300 Zaireans fled across the border to Rwanda on Sunday.

"We will be pushing the message through loudspeakers that the choice is yours but we think you should consider going back to Rwanda," said Moumtzis.

He said UNHCR estimated some 500,000 people -- most of them Rwandan and Burundian refugees -- had been uprooted by more than a week of fighting between Tutsi rebels and Zairean troops.

The line of camps stretches about 250 kilometers in the extreme east of Zaire facing both Rwanda and Burundi.

In Cyangugu, Wende reported no sign Monday of military activity on the Rwandan side of the border. Zaire says Rwanda is sending troops to support Tutsi rebels, a charge Rwanda denies.

Wende said an Associated Press television crew on the Rwandan side of the border near Cyangugu came under fire from Zairean troops Sunday. "They were pinned down for 20 minutes. Every time they tried to move Zairean troops fired at them," he said, adding that they eventually escaped unhurt.

A total of 200,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees emptied Kibumba camp over the weekend after an attack in which four refugees were killed, according to aid workers.