Hutu militias fade as army moves in

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in Bujumbura

The resistance of "rebel" militias crumbled yesterday amid the sound of gunfire and grenades as Burundi government soldiers moved into the last stronghold of the Hutu majority in Bujumbura. Hutu militiamen who had been holed up in the suburb of Kamenge were finally flushed out by hundreds of troops advancing alongside tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

Sporadic gunfire could be heard throughout the day from the hills where most of the northern suburb's people had fled. By last night the streets were empty of all but heavily armed military patrols,

The army chief of staff, Colonel Jean Bikomagu, said 2,000 men took part in the operation, which was ordered by the Prime Minister, Antoine Nduwayo, on Monday.

"I was here early in the morning and there was no fighting, no killings", the UN special envoy to Burundi, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, told the Independent. "Residents were given time to get out before the start of the operation, which was monitored by diplomats and the International Committee of the Red Cross. There were some shots and grenade blasts."

The action came after a stand-off between Hutu militias and the largely Tutsi army, which had encircled the neighbourhood. Nearly 40 people have died in Kamenge and adjacent districts in the past week.

"The residents of Kamenge have been in the hills for the past few days," said the Mayor of Bujumbura, Pie Ntiyankundiye, as he toured the suburb with army commanders. "The militias have probably also fled there."

The Hutu militia - the Forces for the Defence of Democracy - had pledged to fight to the death but in the event the extremists seemed to have bowed to the superior strength of the army.

By the time the first troops began their house-to-house search all but a small number of Kamenge's 40,000 people had gone. Only a few score seemed to be coming out of the area through the "evacuation corridors" set up by the army.

Three wounded people were evacuated by the Red Cross from the neighbouring districts of Gasenyi and Kinama. Edith Baeriswil of the Red Cross said that while most residents had by last night returned to Gasenyi, Kinama was still empty.

In the nearby suburb of Cibitoke aggressive gangs of Tutsi youths - members of the so-called Sans Echecs (Without Failure) militia swaggered about the streets shouting at anyone who ventured into the territory.

The UN World Food Programme and the Red Cross have been getting food to thousands of destitute people in recent days. But there are also unknown thousands of Kamenge residents in the cloud-covered hills north of the capital. "We've got a couple of hundred troops patrolling the quarter," said Colonel Bikomagu.

"When the residents return, they will be asked to register with local committees who will ensure that no arms are brought back in. We expect the residents will start to come back in the next few days."

Given that the people of Kamenge and neighbouring districts fled in fear of government military action this seems unlikely until some assurance is given for their safety.