KIGALI, Rwanda — Tens of thousands of frightened refugees were on the move again Thursday in eastern Zaire after heavy fighting exploded around the airport in Goma, a key logistic and strategic city that appears to be the major target of the widening Central African war.
Roads and bridges north and south of the besieged city, the administrative and supply base for more than 1.1 million refugees, were also cut off by bloody clashes between the beleaguered Zairian military and advancing ethnic Tutsi rebels who oppose the autocratic regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko.
Although the rebellion by Banyamulenge Tutsis ostensibly was launched to secure their citizenship and other rights in Zaire, the conflict has taken an ominous new turn by drawing in ethnic Hutu fighters who carried out the genocide of minority Tutsis here in neighboring Rwanda two years ago.
Soldiers from the former Rwandan government's defeated Hutu army and members of its extremist Hutu militias, who fled to Goma after slaughtering an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates inside Rwanda in 1994, joined the fighting Thursday beside Zairian troops, aid workers said.
Reports that dozens of corpses were seen floating down the Rusizi River, which runs between Zaire and Burundi, were a chilling reminder of the horrors of Rwanda's holocaust.
The fighting and growing panic has forced more than 600,000 Hutu refugees to abandon their camps and move deeper inside Zaire, in effect closing major border sanctuaries and supply bases for the Hutu extremist groups that made frequent deadly forays into Rwanda and Burundi.
"It seems to be their strategy to cut supply lines for the refugees," said Paul Stromberg, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
A diplomat agreed, saying: "Without food, water and medical supplies, a lot of these people may come home. And that may have been the goal."
Evidence is growing that Rwanda's Tutsi-led government has given at least covert support to the Banyamulenge rebels, including training and transport. Rwandan army commandos also infiltrated Zaire early Wednesday to push back Zairian soldiers who had fired mortars and artillery into Rwanda.
"Zaire is absolutely convinced that Rwanda is going to launch an attack," the diplomat added.
In a rare victory, after being routed all week, Zairian troops repulsed the fierce predawn rebel attack on the Goma airport by early afternoon. But aid workers said the insurgents, armed with mortars and machine guns, now control the nearby area.
The loss of Goma and its airport would be a crippling blow to both international aid agencies and the Zairian army. Bukavu and Uvira--the only other two major towns with airstrips in eastern Zaire, which are dozens of miles south of Goma by road--have already fallen to the fast-moving rebels since the bitter conflict erupted three weeks ago.
About 140 international aid workers were trapped in their homes and offices in Goma amid the growing chaos, as the United Nations made plans for partial or total evacuation. All relief groups have already fled Bukavu and Uvira.
"Due to the collapse of security, we can't do the work we are there to do, and we have to consider the safety of our staff," said Peter Kessler, a U.N. refugee agency spokesman based in Nairobi, Kenya.
He warned that if the U.N. and other aid agencies abandon Goma, and their offices, warehouses, hospitals and other facilities are looted and destroyed--as they have been in Uvira and Bukavu--it will be exceedingly difficult to restart the $1-million-a-day relief operation.
About 50 United Nations vehicles were hijacked or stolen in and around Goma as looting and shooting spread through the city, officials said.
About 20,000 Zairians and 115,000 refugees fled early Thursday from the Kahindo camp about 30 miles north of Goma, although it was not immediately clear why the camp had emptied. Aid workers said most of those fleeing headed west on bush tracks toward Mugunga, which has 400,000 inhabitants and is already the world's largest refugee camp.
Allison Campbell, a spokeswoman for CARE International, said Zairian soldiers had seized the CARE compound in Mugunga and turned it into their military headquarters.
Although the refugees' plight is heart-wrenching, it has not reached the scale of the humanitarian disaster that followed Rwanda's civil war. Five-day rations of food were distributed without incident at the Mugunga camp on Wednesday and Thursday, and aid workers said stockpiles should be enough for another week or so. "This is not Somalia," Campbell said. "They're not on the verge of starving."