The arrival in Burundi of the first of 700 South African peace-keeping troops yesterday heralds the final and most dangerous phase in efforts by Nelson Mandela to end an eight-year civil war that has claimed 200,000 lives in the Great Lakes country.
"The main purpose of this is a fulfilment of ex-president Nelson Mandela's dream of forming democracy in Burundi," said Admiral Dennis Forrest as 240 South African troops boarded the plane for the capital, Bujumbura.
But the principal Hutu rebel leader again cast scorn on the peace formula pushed through by the former president of South African. Jean Bosco Ndayikengurukiye said he did not consider himself party to a Hutu-Tutsi power-sharing arrangement – due to come into effect on Thursday. "Fifty-fifty power-sharing has never happened anywhere. It won't happen in Burundi,'' the rebel leader said.
While the deployment of the peace-keepers is historic – it will be the South African Defence Force's largest operation outside southern Africa since the end of apartheid – it is fraught with risk.
Mr Mandela's efforts to prevent Hutu-Tutsi tension in Burundi from degenerating into a Rwandan-style genocide have faced endless hurdles since he took over the mediation role from the late Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, two years ago. As recently as last week, the 83-year-old peace-maker said: "Hardly any of the parties in Burundi appear to be in a hurry to bring peace. They bring gloom."
Mr Mandela, who engineered a power-sharing agreement that 17 parties and the national assembly signed up to in August, has been criticised for attempting to impose a "South African solution" on Rwanda's neighbour.
Under the plan, the Tutsi-dominated regime of President Pierre Buyoya will hand over to a new Tutsi-Hutu government. The peace-keepers' main role is to protect Hutus returning from abroad.
President Buyoya, who came to power in a 1996 coup, will lead for the first 18 months from Thursday, with an ethnic Hutu deputy. The jobs will be swapped in 2003. The plan also includes the creation of a transitional assembly and a multi-ethnic army.
But as well as Mr Ndayikengurukiye, five radical Tutsi parties also insist they will not take part in the government because they are unhappy about the distribution of posts.
Joseph Nzeyimana, a spokesman for a coalition of Tutsi parties, said: "We will not enter either the government or the national assembly or the senate, if the balance, the renegotiation of the government structures or the composition of the parliament are not settled."
Nearly eight years of civil war between the two ethnic groups have killed more than 200,000 people.
Last week, at least 13 civilians, believed to be Hutus, were reportedly killed in Buhororo II, western Burundi, in what appeared to be a military revenge operation for an ambush in which two soldiers were either killed or injured, depending on reports. The activation of the power-sharing arrangement and the deployment of peace-keepers comes at a tense time for the former Belgian protectorate, because hundreds of Burundian Hutus are presently returning from bases in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. These Hutus are being rooted out by a Rwandan offensive in DRC.
The Rwandans insist they cannot withdraw their troops from the DRC until they are sure that Hutu rear bases in the country – which are home to the interahamwe who carried out the 1994 Rwandan genocide – have been dismantled.
It is understood that the South African government has been reluctant to meet Mr Mandela's request to send peace-keepers to Burundi, and that high-ranking members of the defence department think the troops are not ready for such a tricky operation.
The last time South African troops deployed in large numbers beyond the country's borders was for a disastrous offensive in Lesotho in 1998, aimed at thwarting a coup.
After much resistance and negotiations with the United Nations' Security Council, the South African cabinet finally agreed on Friday to dispatch the peace-keepers, but only after the troops were put under Burundi's command, and President Buyoya was made the guarantor of their safety. It is not clear to what extent this compromise will impede their ability to intervene.Reuse content