. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Refugee Flood Slows, Plan for Aid Debated

GISENYI, Rwanda -- After three days at full flood, the flow of refugees out of Zaire into Rwanda slowed Monday and the world community struggled for consensus on whether a planned force to help the refugees was still needed.

With the United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimating that some 500,000 Hutu refugees were already back home and more still on the way, several countries -- barely able to hide their relief -- called for a radical rethink of the UN-approved force's size and aims.

But France, the first country to call for humanitarian intervention, and Canada, which offered to lead it, said Monday that it must go ahead. The United Nations agreed.

Countries set to participate in the Canadian-led force said they would meet Wednesday at the U.S. military's European headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, to review the situation.

Meanwhile, the Rwandan government, deeply suspicious of the international community, went out of its way to speed the Hutus homeward, relaxing security at border posts and dropping plans to register the returnees.

"We now have a 60-kilometer human caterpillar moving from Gisenyi to the other side of Ruhengeri," UNHCR spokesman Ray Wilkinson told reporters.

Zaire's Tutsi rebels, who have close links with Kigali, also announced they would open a corridor in the Bukavu region so thousands of other refugees could also return.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UNHCR's special humanitarian coordinator for the region, praised Kigali.

"They [the Rwandans] have taken risks and sacrificed security concerns for the refugees," he said in the Rwandan capital, but said the UN force should still come.

"There are large numbers of people that still need help and assistance," he added.

Canada's foreign minister concurred. "Now is not the time to pause and reflect. We still have to have very direct action," Lloyd Axworthy said.

Axworthy said large numbers of refugees remained in various parts of eastern Zaire. They were weak, tired and hungry and would find it difficult to join the exodus.

On Monday, Eritrea joined the chorus of countries saying the force was at best no longer necessary, and said it was withdrawing an earlier commitment to take part.

Meanwhile, refugees woke up on the roads in the eastern Zairean city of Goma, put their belongings on their heads, held firm to their children and started walking at first light.

The first group plodded without pausing past three Rwandan soldiers at the border and crossed into the Rwandan town of Gisenyi.

The soldiers abandoned the border post minutes later as the flow of refugees increased. But at times it dwindled to a thin broken line, compared to the thousands crossing every hour, even in the early morning, on the previous two days.

More than a million Hutus fled Rwanda in mid-1994 after a rebel Tutsi army overran the country following the genocide of Tutsis by Hutu extremists. Many ended up in camps in eastern Zaire.

Fearing reprisals if they returned home, and terrified of the armed Hutu militants in their midst, the refugees stayed in their camps until an onslaught this month by Zairean rebels, including many Tutsis, forced the extremists to flee.

U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry stressed Sunday that Washington had yet to make a firm decision on participation.

The Stuttgart meeting was announced at the World Food Summit in Rome by South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki. Like Washington, South Africa had been a reluctant participant in the force, which was set up to help get food to the refugees.