Troops backed by tanks and armoured cars circled the northern suburb of Kamenge, where well-armed Hutu militiamen consolidated their positions behind barricades of trees and scrap iron. Sporadic gunfire was heard throughout the day. More than 30 people have been killed since clashes started between soldiers and Hutu fighters a week ago, according to local townspeople.
Since the skirmishes began a week ago, more than 20,000 people are believed to have left Kamenge, which normally has a population of between 40,000 and 50,000. People continued to flee yesterday, making their way to villages and fields in the hills overlooking the capital, bringing the number estimated to have been displaced by fighting in three areas of Bujumbura to more than 40,000. The UN World Food Programme and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have started emergency food distributions for thousands of destitute civilians.
The military action comes in response to an order by the Prime Minister, Antoine Nduwayo, that the army should flush out the gunmen. In a radio broadcast on Monday night, Mr. Nduwayo declared that the suburb would soon be "freed of terrorists". He advised the remaining residents to leave their homes so that innocent lives would not be lost.
"There is a stand-off at the moment between the army and the militias at Kamenge", Edith Berreswil of the Red Cross said last night. "So far, the government has made no real move. We believe there are wounded people in there and we would like to evacuate them, but it is too dangerous for us to enter Kamenge at the moment".
Burundi has suffered a vicious cycle of killings and reprisals for more than a year and a half. In recent months there have been repeated clashes between militants of the Tutsi minority and rival Hutu militias. The rise of the Hutu militias, who are supported by a number of extremist politicians, is largely a result of their frustration at being unable to overcome the undue influence of the Tutsi minority, whose own armed gangs operate with relative impunity.
Two of the capital's previously mixed districts, Bwiza and Buyenzi, were all but cleansed of Hutus in March, leaving Bujumbura an essentially Tutsi town in an otherwise predominantly Hutu country. At that time, some 200 Hutus were killed in attacks by Tutsi militias backed by government soldiers. Many hardline elements were removed from Kamenge in April, but most of the residents remained in their homes, despite the threat of further military action.
Burundi's Hutu President, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, who has headed a fragile coalition government since a power-sharing accord last year, has warned that the country is "sliding into hell". But like Mr Nduwayo, a Tutsi appointed earlier this year, he has seemed powerless to alter the course of events.Reuse content