Burundi aid workers go in fear of gunmen

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He had the look of a man beset by anxieties. His eyes were red and weary, his brow was knitted in a severe frown. Gemmo Lodesani, director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Burundi, ran a hand over his balding pate and reached for the cigarettes on his desk.

For the previous two days a WFP convoy from Tanzania had been held up by Tutsi militiamen demanding to search the trucks for arms. The drivers had been obliged to change their normal route through the capital, Bujumbura, because of an army "cleansing" operation in the Hutu suburb of Kamenge.

They drove unwittingly through Musaga district, where nine Tutsis had just been killed and mutilated by Hutu extremists. The local Tutsi thugs, members of the Sans Echecs ("Without Failure") militia, were spoiling for trouble. That the food relief was destined for Rwandan Hutu refugees in Zaire did not improve their mood. There was some shooting and a couple of grenades were thrown but finally at the weekend the army secured the safe onward passage of the convoy. Gemmo Lodesani could afford a weak smile of relief as he sank lower in his office chair. He had survived yet another Burundian crisis.

"There's been a real escalation of violence recently and the security situation is deteriorating daily", he said. "It got to the stage last week where I rang headquarters in Rome and told them we might have to consider pulling out of Burundi. It's getting very risky." He took out a four-page stencilled letter. It was a death threat recently delivered to his employees in the northern province of Ngozi, one of a number of warnings recently received by WFP.

There has been a marked increase in recent months in the number of incidents involving UN agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Burundi. With the killing in May of Dimitri Lascaris, a Greek working for the American NGO Catholic Relief Services, came the realisation that no aid workers, local or expatriate, were safe.

Many parts of northern Burundi, where Lascaris was murdered, have become no-go areas for aid organisations. The situation is particularly tense because of the presence there of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees, beneficiaries of substantial food and other aid programmes. Aid organisations serving these groups are regarded as partisan by the extremist Tutsi militias. In a desperate effort to defuse the situation, UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, has decided to extend its programme to include internally-displaced Tutsis.

A UN security consultant who prefers to remain anonymous said: "This is a slow-burning war. In other dangerous countries you can usually predict the situation, but here it's very complex, things can change very quickly. It could blow up at any moment."

n Nairobi (AP) - Security forces in Burundi have collaborated with Tutsi extremists in murdering thousands of unarmed Hutu civilians since January, Amnesty International said yesterday. It said executions by the mostly Tutsi army continue in a deliberate campaign to eliminate prominent Hutus.