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Published Jul. 6, 2006

Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees streamed homeward from eastern Zaire on Friday, appearing to break a military and political deadlock that had threatened to cause a human catastrophe on a grand scale.

The sudden exodus of refugees began after Zairian rebels routed ethnic Hutu militias that had prevented the refugees from returning home for nearly two years. The refugees began pouring out of the sprawling camp just as the United States, Canada and other nations were preparing to send troops to rescue more than a million refugees cut off from food and water by fighting. That mission is now in question.

The departing refugees, some 400,000 of them, formed a column 25 miles long from eastern Zaire to Rwanda. It was as if the entire population of St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo and Pinellas Park suddenly decided to walk to Tampa.

There were extraordinary scenes along the road: a woman nursing newborn twins, a lost child stumbling along in tears clutching a leaf, hungry people picking unripe beans. The mass of ragged people marched with bundles on their heads past skeletons and rotting corpses of people killed in battle, past the rude fortifications the Hutu guerrillas had erected, through the town of Goma and over the border.

They came carrying everything they owned _ machetes, pots, umbrellas, sheeting, mats, guitars, water cans, burlap sacks full of tattered clothes.

After two years of exile and fear, of living in makeshift huts on a volcanic plain that was never fit for human habitation, many expressed joy at what they considered signs of the end of the ethnic war that caused them to flee in April 1994. Many said that they had wanted to return to Rwanda for over a year but that the Hutu guerrilla forces based in the camps, known as the Interahamwe, had prevented them, using intimidation and propaganda.

"We have been kept as hostages for two years," Wenceslas Gakwaya, 61, said. "It was just good luck for us to escape from the Interahamwe this morning," he said.

The militias' power was broken by a rebel artillery barrage against the sprawling Mugunga camp Thursday. After the guns fell silent, the refugees began their trek out of the camp. The militias retreated west, further into the forests of Zaire's interior, and tried to force the refugees to follow them _ but this time the people voted with their feet.

Pouring over the border at a rate of more than 70 a minute, the refugees were directed by U.N. workers to an empty refugee camp just inside Rwanda.

"The impasse has been broken, and these people are moving in the right direction," said Ray Wilkinson, a U.N. spokesman. "It wasn't the ideal way to break the problem, like this, but it has been cracked."

The exodus did not represent a final resolution of the crisis, however, since hundreds of thousands of refugees remain unaccounted for.

The Mugunga camp held about 400,000 refugees before aid workers were evacuated two weeks ago. There were another 300,000 who fled from camps north of Goma and were headed for the Mugunga camp. It is not known how many arrived.

There are also about 490,000 refugees from the towns of Bukavu and Uvira, 150 miles to the south, who are still scattered through the countryside south of Lake Kivu. After nearly a month without aid, they are thought to have little means of getting food and clean water.

It also remains to be seen if the U.N. refugee agency and the Rwandan government can move the refugees through the border camp before sanitation becomes a problem.

Rwanda issued a statement saying it would no longer support the international intervention plan. Laurent Desire Kabila, the commander of the Zairian rebels, who have close ties to Rwanda, said he saw no more need for foreign troops.

"I don't think the international community has any reason _ as Mugunga will not be there _ to come here," Kabila said. "What reason will they have?"

The Rwandan Hutu refugees first arrived in Zaire in the summer of 1994, fleeing an advancing Tutsi army. Hutus make up 85 percent of Rwanda's population.

Among the refugees were 40,000 soldiers loyal to the former Hutu-led government in Rwanda, and tens of thousands of militiamen who had taken part in massacres of Tutsi and moderate Hutu in which at least 500,000 died.