Burundi peace force to stave off collapse

African Summit: Deal sought to prevent bloodshed and chaos
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The Independent Online
With the memory of the failed African peace-keeping mission in Liberia fresh in their minds, the continent's leaders must now consider the prospects for bringing peace to another war-torn African nation: Burundi. The tiny central-African state will be top of the agenda at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit which opens in Cameroon today.

Proposals for a regional security force to put an end to fighting between rebels from the Hutu majority and the largely Tutsi army are currently the best, and perhaps the only, hope for Burundi. The country risks being engulfed by full-scale ethnic conflict similar to that which caused the deaths of up to one million people in neighbouring Rwanda two years ago. Already, some 1,000 people are killed in Burundi every month.

The plan for deploying a multinational peace-keeping force in Burundi poses a credibility test for the pan-African body regarded by many as a well-intentioned, but ultimately ineffectual talking shop. And the OAU cannot escape the fact that even with its approval for a regional military force, peace efforts might be forestalled by events taking place in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura.

After prolonged resistance to outside intervention, Burundi's leaders recently reached a decision at a peace summit in Tanzania. The Prime Minister, Antoine Ndwayo, a member of the powerful Tutsi minority, and the President, Sylvestre Ntibantunganga, a Hutu, agreed that the time had come to accept "security assistance".

The Prime Minister's acceptance of the Western-backed intervention plan was seen as a breakthrough. Only last month, the prospect of an army coup to block foreign involvement seemed a real possibility.

But, by the time of last month's summit of six regional nations, it had become clear that Burundi's army was no longer able to contain the crisis which has turned some parts of the country into virtual no-go areas for the government. The Prime Minister and Defence Minister were obliged to accept the view of former Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, who has been chairing peace talks under an international mandate: only foreign intervention can now prevent Burundi from spiralling into further chaos and bloodshed.

Under the terms of the plan, an East African force of Ugandans, Tanzanians and Ethiopians will endeavour to restore peace to the stricken nation.

The force's mission would be to protect politicians, civil servants and strategic installations. It would also help to retrain the largely Tutsi security forces which are locked in conflict with Hutu rebels.

Despite his endorsement of the peace plan, however, Mr Nduwayo may not have done enough to appease hardliners in his own community. In recent days, Mr Nduwayo has come under mounting pressure to renounce the initiative.

The Prime Minister's own Uprona party has dismissed the plan as amounting to "high treason". University students in Bujumbura have taken to the streets to protest against the proposals which could see foreign troops inside Burundi by the end of this month. And Tutsi extremists, among them former president Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, have called for strikes and civil disobedience to resist such a deployment.

In an ironic twist, Tutsi hardliners now find themselves taking the same line as their Hutu rebel foes who are also against foreign intervention. Colonel Bagaza has warned of "armed resistance" to outsiders. The main Hutu rebel group, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy, says it too will regard peace-keepers as a hostile invasion force.