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UNHCR condemns refugee expulsion from ex-Zaire

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UNHCR condemns refugee expulsion from ex-Zaire

4 September 1997

Soldiers today forcibly expelled Rwandan and Burundi refugees and asylum seekers from the former Zaire in a predawn operation the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees vehemently condemned as a "blatant breach of international refugee treaties."

As a result of the incident, High Commissioner Sadako Ogata will review with the UN Secretary-General UNHCR's continued operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Ogata sent a protest letter to DRC President Laurent Kabila. She is also urging Rwanda to ensure UNHCR's unhindered access to these people.

One aircraft carrying the first group thrown out of Kisangani in central DRC arrived in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, at mid-morning. The rest are expected to be flown to Rwanda before the end of the day.

The soldiers surrounded the UNHCR transit centre in Kisangani at 4 a.m., herded all the occupants except for a few pregnant women to the airport. They sealed off the route to the airport and denied UNHCR access to the group.

The facility held 336 Rwandans and 353 Burundi awaiting screening to determine who among them deserved formal refugee status.

In a statement issued in Geneva, Mrs. Ogata condemned the expulsion in the strongest possible terms, saying "it shows a wanton disregard for basic rights and represents a blatant breach of international treaties including the OAU (Organization of African Unity) Refugee Convention."

"The DRC Government has simply ignored our pleas to allow these people to be screened to establish if they were genuine refugees deserving international protection. Such actions are completely unacceptable." She said initial interviews indicated many of these people may have had valid claims to be refugees.

Some of the refugees in Kisangani were survivors of a bloody attack in April in which more than 80,000 Rwandans and Burundi were dispersed by the military from two encampments south of the city. Since then, there have been persistent reports of refugees being harassed or even killed.

Thursday's expulsion followed a stepped up hate campaign against the Rwandans in Kisangani on local radio and threats to expel them by the military. There are more than 2,500 Rwandans in 10 different UNHCR facilities in the DRC - about half of them are awaiting screening. Tens of thousands more are unaccounted for. UNHCR last week dispatched two teams of legal officers to the region for the interviews. Last month, Gabon expelled more than 150 Rwandans, including eight recognized as refugees by UNHCR.