Burundi looks for UN 'miracle' to avert famine

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FAMINE WILL strike Burundi within weeks unless there is rapid delivery of food, according to aid workers here. The United Nations is expected to launch an appeal for dollars 67m ( pounds 46m) for Burundi shortly.

'There will be serious problems in the next two months,' said Daniel Phillipin of the International Red Cross. 'Malnutrition among children is rising rapidly and everyone predicts a very serious problem unless the World Food Programme works a miracle, but at the moment they just don't have the food.'

The crisis has been caused by civil war which erupted in October causing more than a million people to flee their homes and miss two planting seasons. The WFP estimates that 970,000 Burundians, a fifth of the population, are now dependent on food aid. Of those, 320,000 are in neighbouring countries. Although WFP launched an appeal last year, food donors have not responded and the organisation has been unable to meet its targets. The food pipeline is now empty and WFP is distributing only a quarter of the required ration.

There have been a series of visits by senior UN officials culminating in a tour by officials of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, which is expected to ask the UN to launch an immediate special appeal.

One of the problems has been that Burundi is a tiny country of no international significance so it has not been given priority in the food aid queue. But its infrastructure is good. The massacres that followed the assassination in October of the president, Melchior Ndadaye, did not affect state or commercial structures and foreigners can move freely. If food, seeds and hoes arrive they can be easily distributed.

A peace settlement based on a new political deal is essential, however. After weeks of negotiation, the government announced a new cabinet on Saturday that distributed seats between its own Frodebu Party, which represents the Hutu people, and Uprona, the leading opposition party traditionally supported by the Tutsis. Although the Tutsis make up less than 15 per cent of the population, they have traditionally ruled the country and have a monopoly of the professional jobs, in commerce and in the army.

President Ndadaye was the first Hutu president. Under the new deal Frodebu will hold 16 seats out of 27, including the key posts of internal affairs and finance, while Uprona provides the prime minister.

The key question is what happens to the army. President Ndadaye's plans to introduce ethnic balance into the army was an important factor in provoking the coup by army officers. In many cases during the massacres soldiers joined in on the side of the Tutsis. They have let it be known that if there are further attempts to tamper with their dominance of the army, they will take their guns home and become a Tutsi militia.

Just how fragile the politics are was illustrated by one diplomat involved in negotiations to form a new government. He said President Ndadaye's assassins are well known but no arrests have been made for fear of sparking the violence again. He scoffed at the idea of bringing them to justice. 'What justice,' he said. 'The whole legal system is manned by Tutsis.'

Yesterday's headline on Burundi stated, incorrectly, that a fifth of the population had died in the civil war. This was an editing error. In fact, about 2 per cent of the population was killed, and a fifth made homeless.