U.N. diplomats urge Burundi dialogue as rebels raise stakes

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A crisis in Burundi that has left hundreds dead must be resolved by dialogue, U.N. Security Council diplomats told Burundi officials on Friday, after rebels raised the stakes by declaring a general who led a failed coup in May now led their force.

Thursday’s announcement by the rebel group, FOREBU, that it was now commanded by the former intelligence chief, General Godefroid Niyombare, deepens concerns that Burundi is sliding back into conflict after its ethnically charged civil war ended in 2005.

The United Nations estimates the death toll at 439 people but says it could be higher. More than 240,000 people have fled abroad.
“The fighting has to stop and the killings have to stop,” deputy French ambassador to the United Nations, Alexis Lamek, told Reuters after diplomats met Burundi’s foreign minister, Alain Nyamitwe, adding that dialogue was “the only way”.

Diplomats from the 15-member council arrived in Burundi on Thursday evening and are scheduled to meet President Pierre Nkurunziza later on Friday.

Some of them want to persuade Nkurunziza, whose re-election for a third term sparked the crisis, to accept an African peacekeeping force to prevent an ethnic conflict in a region where memories of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide remain fresh.

The president has rejected the deployment, saying the troops would constitute “an invading force”. The issue is expected to be a focus for an African Union summit at the end of January.

Burundi’s first vice president, Gaston Sindimwo, said the government was open to dialogue. “We can’t, at the same time, stand by and allow criminals to have their way,” he said.

Months of talks between the government and the opposition last year failed to make progress. New negotiations begun at the end of December in Uganda have already stalled.

Regional Western diplomats say the government has set too many conditions about who can attend talks to make them meaningful. They also say rebels may believe they can make more gains through force of arms than at the negotiating table.

The opposition has called for a peacekeeping force and sanctions to be imposed on Burundi to pressure the government into embracing dialogue.
“We’re on the brink of disaster in terms of our politics, society and human rights,” said Leonce Ngendakumana, the president of the opposition party FRODEBU.

REBEL LEADER

Rebel leader Niyombare disappeared after the attempted coup. Allies said he was alive and still working to unseat Nkurunziza, although he has made no public statements and his wherabouts could not be independently verified. Other coup plotters have been jailed.

Burundi’s 12-year civil war pitted what was then a army led by minority Tutsis against rebels from the majority Hutu ethnic group, including one group led by Nkurunziza. Niyombare, a Hutu, had been part of that group, the CNDD-FDD force.

The crisis has broadly followed political allegiances, with Hutus and Tutsis on both sides. The opposition says Nkurunziza’s third term violates the constitution and a peace deal that ended the civil war. Loyalists cite a court ruling that he could run.

The government insists there is no ethnic bias, but opponents say districts of Bujumbura where many Tutsis live – and which were also hotbeds of protest against Nkurunziza last year – have been targeted with some Tutsis singled out.