Burundi threatens Congo after massacre of 160 Tutsis

The spectre of a new ethnic conflagration hung over central Africa last night as Burundi and Rwanda threatened to cross into neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo to hunt down the killers of 160 Tutsis.

The spectre of a new ethnic conflagration hung over central Africa last night as Burundi and Rwanda threatened to cross into neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo to hunt down the killers of 160 Tutsis.

Women, children and babies were among the Congolese Tutsis who were massacred in a UN refugee camp inside Burundi close to the Congo border last Friday. The victims were burnt, hacked and shot to death in one of the worst massacres in the troubled Great Lakes region in years.

The attack was claimed by Burundian Hutu extremists of the rebel National Liberation Forces (FNL), but the Burundian army chief yesterday accused Congolese soldiers of taking part. Remnants of the Rwandan Hutu extremist militias responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda are also still based in Congo.

"The negative forces that attacked were made of [Burundi rebels] that acted as guides, former Rwandan soldiers, together with part of the Congolese army," said Brigadier General Germain Niyoyankana. He said the Congolese faction was made up of tribal fighters known as Mai Mai, who yesterday denied the charge.

The UN, which has a peacekeeping mission in Burundi aimed at shepherding the Burundian factions through a peace process supposed to include elections in October, is investigating the massacre.

A UN spokeswoman, Isabelle Abric, said it was too soon to say whether the FLN rebels were responsible for the massacre. The UN and the Foreign Office expressed concern about the possible escalation of violence, fearing that it could fuel the resumption of full-scale war in a region which has already endured a decade of fighting between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis.

Rwanda and Burundi have twice invaded Congo in attempts to track down Hutu militias. The second invasion, in 1998, sparked a five-year war in Congo that drew in six African countries before it officially ended in 2003. Sporadic violence has continued in Congo's eastern region ever since.

Asked about the renewed threat from Burundi and Rwanda, Ms Abric said: "we are very saddened by such statements. Violence doesn't solve anything".

The victims of the massacre were all ethnic Tutsis from Congo known as the Banyamulenge who had sought refuge across the border from fighting around the town of Bukavu in June. Burundian returnees, who were also in the camp at Gatumba, were not attacked.

It is the latest tragedy to affect the Banyamulenge, who were stripped of their civil rights in the former Zaire under a controversial 1981 law, despite having settled in the country at the end of the 18th century. The first place they settled in was at Mulenge, from which they derived their name Banyamulenge (people of Mulenge).

The South African government, which is to attend a regional summit on the Burundi peace efforts today in Dar es Salaam, said the FNL should face sanctions. "The movement of its leaders should be restricted and they should not be allowed anywhere," Aziz Pahad, the deputy foreign minister, said. "They should also be declared a terrorist group and all the sanctions that go with it put in place."

But some observers remained puzzled as to why the FNL would have staged such a brazen and brutal attack, at a time when it had begun to show some willingness to join the peace process.

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