Hundreds killed as Burundi army runs amok

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Kigali - More than 250 Hutus in northern Burundi were killed in a raid last weekend that appears to have been the work of Burundi government soldiers, a senior government official said yesterday.

The attackers struck at Tangara hill, near the northern town of Ngozi. Most of the dead were villagers.

"We have information from the governor that 252 people were killed. We don't have details but it appears it was the military," said the presidential cabinet chief, Mames Bansubiyeko.

Aid workers of Western relief agencies in Ngozi said more than 140 people had died and the death toll could reach 200. The raid appeared to be in retaliation for attacks carried out by Hutus on the Tutsi minority.

Tens of thousands of people have died in two years of conflict between the mainly Tutsi army and rebels of the Hutu majority who control swathes of land in the north. The latest cycle of bloodshed was sparked off by the October 1993 assassination of the first democratically-elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, by renegade Tutsi soldiers.

The remote northern region was tense yesterday. Aid workers in Ngozi reported clashes between the rebels and the military near Kayanza region, to the west of Ngozi. "A lot of people are fleeing to the hills," one Westerner said.

Aid workers said the killings began on Friday and lasted into Saturday. Up to 50 people were in Ngozi hospital with injuries. There were also casualties in hospital in Kayanza town, they said. Western diplomats in the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, said the governor of Ngozi promised to announce a detailed report on the killings.

The crisis in the Central African state has deepened recently with extremist militias from both sides threatening to torpedo the uneasy collaboration between a Hutu-led government and the army

Despite moves towards pluralist politics, the Tutsi-run army has refused to open up its ranks to Hutus.

The shaky coalition's writ no longer runs outside the capital. The army and Tutsi death squads rule the interior while Hutu rebels with equally vicious reputations hold sway in the north-west and north-east.

Neighbouring Rwanda has a similar ethnic mix. Last year an estimated 1 million Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in a genocidal campaign instigated by the then Hutu-led government and army.