KAMPALA, Uganda — Sixteen Rwandan students who fled to Uganda over alleged recruitment into a Congolese rebel group are now under police protection at a secret location, a Ugandan government official said Thursday.
David Kazungu, Uganda's commissioner for refugees, said the students will be considered for refugee status despite Rwanda's protestation.
"Rwanda's government does not manage refugee affairs in Uganda," he said. "We want to give (the students) a hearing."
The students' account is strongly disputed by Rwanda's government, which wants the 14 men and two women deported.
Frank Mugambage, Rwanda's ambassador to Uganda, told reporters this week that the students' case was academic and had nothing to do with politics or security. Rwanda's education ministry has listed the fleeing students among more than 500 whose results were officially confiscated for alleged malpractices.
"The background is that these people defrauded the system established by the Rwanda examinations board to sit (high school) exams," he said Tuesday.
The students say they fled Rwanda on June 3, ending weeks of what they say was harassment by security officials who targeted them for dodging a "political awareness program" in Butare, a town 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the capital.
Two of the fleeing students said in interviews this week that they resisted going to Butare because most of their friends who went there never came back. They said their classmates were forced to cross the border and fight alongside M23, one of many rebel groups operating in troubled eastern Congo.
The students' allegations suggested M23 was recruiting inside Rwanda, which has long denied any involvement with rebels. A U.N. panel of experts has said that Rwanda has lent direct support to M23, a charge the Rwandan government denies.
M23 is made up of hundreds of Congolese soldiers who deserted the national army last year after accusing the government of failing to honor the terms of a deal signed in March 2009.