NAIROBI, Kenya -- The United Nations has evacuated all foreign aid workers from the eastern Zaire city of Kisangani, leaving thousands of Rwandan refugees to an uncertain fate, U.N. officials said yesterday.
The move came one day after the secretary-general called for an international peacekeeping force in eastern Zaire.
U.N. officials said aid workers had been pulled out because the increasingly feeble Zairian government could no longer guarantee their security in Kisangani, a strategically important city on the Congo River that rebel forces have been trying to capture.
The evacuation dealt a setback to U.N. efforts to save some 100,000 to 200,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees in the region from disease and starvation. Kisangani, the third-largest city in Zaire and the government's last bastion in the east, is the headquarters for the relief operation that has been flying food to the refugees.
Kisangani is also the nerve center of the Zairian army's operations against the rebels. In the past month, the army's counteroffensive has sputtered to a standstill while the rebels have continued to advance on several fronts.
There were unconfirmed reports yesterday that the rebels had taken Kindu, a transportation hub on the Lualaba River about 250 miles south of Kisangani.
With rumors circulating in Kisangani that the rebels were pressing close to that city as well, tensions have been running high, aid officials said.
U.N. officials said they feared that panicking Zairian soldiers would loot aid organizations and attack relief workers while retreating, as they did in Goma and Bukavu when the rebels took those cities last fall.
"If we have learned anything in this past year, it's that aid workers working in insecure areas are not only vulnerable to the circumstances around them, but can even be targeted," said Michele Quintaglie, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program.
Quintaglie said 57 relief workers were flown out of Kisangani.
Although the camps contain thousands of malnourished children, women and elderly people who are at risk of dying if relief is cut off, the refugees also also include tens of thousands of former Rwandan soldiers and militiamen who took part in massacres of Tutsis in Rwanda.
In the past two weeks, the Zairian government has armed these groups, flying in planeloads of weapons to the camps in an effort to check the rebel advance.
Pub Date: 3/02/97