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Rwandan Asylum Seekers Forcibly Deported from Burundi

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees agency says it is very concerned about reports that hundreds of Rwandan refugees have been forcibly deported from Burundi. The agency says it has received reports from some Rwandans that physical and verbal intimidation is being used to force the refugees to go home.

The U.N. refugee agency says asylum seekers at the Ntega site in the northeastern province of Kirundo told staff workers that the Burundian military broke into their shelters on Wednesday evening and beat them with batons.

UNHCR Spokesman, Ron Redmond, says the soldiers also told the asylum seekers they would be beaten again unless they had left the site by the end of the next day.

"When our staff arrived at the site the following morning, only a few hundred of the 1,500 asylum seekers who had been staying at Ntega were still around," Mr. Redmond said. "Most were packing their belongings. In the next few hours, our staff saw two pickups and three trucks leave the site for Rwanda, carrying approximately 250 to 300 people. Many other asylum seekers left on foot. Only two families remained on the site by the end of the afternoon."

Mr. Redmond says the UNHCR office in the capital, Bujumbura, contacted the Burundian authorities immediately after it received the report.

Nearly 7,000 Rwandans have fled to Burundi since early April because of threats of violence arising from village tribunals looking into the 1994 genocide. An estimated 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu moderates were killed by Hutu extremists, many of whom are now being tried for their crimes.

About 9,000 of these local courts, known as Gacaca, have been set up to deal with a backlog of tens of thousands of suspects awaiting trial in conventional courts.

Mr. Redmond says two weeks ago, the Rwandan and Burundian authorities launched a campaign aimed at easing the fears of the asylum seekers and encouraging them to go back to Rwanda. He says the campaign, which was supposed to have ended on Thursday, now has been extended an additional week.

He says the Burundian authorities had given the UNHCR assurances that no one would be sent home against his or her will.

"Four of the seven temporary sites where Rwandan asylum seekers had been staying since early April are now empty," he said. "Some of the asylum seekers are leaving on trucks sent by the Rwandan government to take them back home, but most of them are leaving on foot. UNHCR is not organizing these departures, and is often not present when the asylum seekers are leaving the sites. U.N. staff in Burundi are subject to a curfew between the hours of 4:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m., most of the departures appear to be taking place during these hours."

UNHCR spokesman Redmond says it is difficult to know exactly how many of the 7,000 Rwandan asylum seekers have left. He says it is likely that not everyone at the camp sites has gone back to Rwanda. He says some of the people who departed are thought to be hiding in neighboring areas.