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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tutsi Rebels Call Cease-Fire in Zaire

BUKAVU, Zaire -- Tutsi rebels announced a cease-fire in eastern Zaire on Monday after a lightning two-week offensive left more than a million refugees stranded with little food or water.


The Swiss news agency reported that Zaire's ailing president Mobutu Sese Seko left Switzerland on board a private plane for an unknown destination. It was not clear whether he would return to Zaire to confront the growing chaos in his country. Mobutu has been absent from Zaire since August, receiving treatment for prostate cancer.


Rebels warned war would resume unless Zaire's army abided by the truce -- a tall order for the Kinshasa government which has vowed to recapture a string of lost towns and cities.


Rebel leader Laurent Kabila said his fighters would observe a three-week cease-fire from Monday evening to allow 1.1 million Rwandan and Burundian Hutu refugees to return home.


Reuters correspondent Christian Jennings in the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi bordering on the Zairean city of Goma said: "The cease-fire appears to be holding. There is absolutely no sound of gunfire."


"The Alliance for Democracy following a unilateral decision will have a cease-fire to start at 5 p.m. today for three weeks," said Kabila by telephone, saying he was speaking from Bukavu.


"This is because of the disquiet of the international community, to allow the International Red Cross to evacuate the refugees who want to return to their original countries," he added.


"We hope that the unilateral cease-fire will be respected by the Zairean side. If they are against this decision, then combat will restart immediately," added Kabila, who called journalists abroad.


Rebels in Bukavu, seized last Tuesday, said they were waiting for Kabila to arrive in the lakeside city, which is calm and to which thousands of Zaireans are returning each day.


The Rwandan refugees have so far refused to go home, fearing punishment for Rwanda's 1994 genocide in which many took part.


Tens of thousands of Hutu militiamen and former Rwandan soldiers, many of them armed, are among the refugees.


In Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata appealed for international action to create protected humanitarian corridors in eastern Zaire to coax Rwandan refugees home.


Ogata acknowledged the difficulty of creating safe routes to lure the refugees home when they are heading deeper into Zaire, but said this was a priority to stop the conflict spreading.


"It's a question of how we set it [corridors] up quickly, especially when the refugees are fleeing to the other direction, westward, under the attack of various fighting forces," she said.


But in a sign of differing international agendas, France proposed an international conference to examine how to restore security to allow the refugees to return to their Zaire camps.


Aid workers and regional experts said there were no signs any European capitals were prepared to try to tackle the region's complex patchwork of tribal, economic and political crises which lie at the heart of the current instability.


"They are talking about putting food in people's mouths again, but that is not enough. That is exactly what created this mess in the first place," said the head of a humanitarian organization.


Concern over the Rwandan refugees mounted to fever pitch.


"How many pictures of massacres and of dying babies will it take before the heads of state and UN react?" asked the relief agency M?d?cins Sans Fronti?res, or Doctors Without Borders, in a call for international military intervention.


Earlier Kabila urged relief teams to return to rebel-held areas to care for the refugees. The Zairean army, blaming the government for a lack of equipment, has vowed to counterattack.


"We give them security so that they can land and use the airport at Kilimba close to Uvira as well as in Goma, which is completely under our control," Kabila, who is not a Tutsi, said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation.


Uvira, on the northern shore of Lake Tanganyika and south of Goma, was taken by the rebels more than a week ago.


It was not possible to confirm independently the rebel claim to have seized all of the city of Goma, where fierce fighting over the weekend forced all international aid workers to flee.


Jennings in Gisenyi said the border crossing into Zaire was held by rebels Monday, and the last firing was in the morning.


A rebel in Bukavu said he took part in battles for Kivumu airport, 30 kilometers to the north of the town, and it fell Sunday.


The rebels are setting up a radio station in a building in Bukavu, growing short of food because most shops were looted.


Zaire accuses Tutsi-led Rwanda, which has long complained of cross-border raids by Hutu hardliners living among the refugees, of sending troops to fight alongside the rebels. Journalists saw Rwandan troops in Goma on Saturday. Rwanda denies involvement.