Hutus flee army killing spree in Burundi capital

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Hundreds of people were fleeing down the road as we drove towards Rubirizi, a district on the northern outskirts of Bujumbura. Some carried bundles but most were empty-handed, as if they had set out in a hurry. They streamed past, in a panic. One woman was crying. Her mother had just been shot dead, said a man walking alongside her.

It was clear another army "action" was taking place and that more civilians were being killed. The soldiers had entered Rubirizi shortly after dawn, they said, and started shooting. One man reported hearing shots and seeing bodies of adults and children in the marketplace. Another said he saw soldiers handcuffing young men and driving them off. He had hidden in the bushes, then run away.

The people on the road were all Hutus. Many of them were from Kinama, one of the capital's slum districts which was "swept" by Burundi government security forces on Wednesday.

Thousands of Hutus fled the northern suburbs this week as the largely Tutsi army and police moved in to flush out militiamen. Scores of civilians have been killed.

Fearing an encounter with the military, we proceeded slowly until we were certain the shooting was over and the soldiers had withdrawn. We had seen no traffic apart from a government armoured vehicle. Turning off the main road, we went down a lane into the centre of Rubirizi. There, in a small marketplace, we discovered the ghastly evidence of the army's latest security operation.

Beside an overturned market stall the body of a little boy lay in the dirt, his skull split open and his brains splattered on the ground beside him. Nearby, his older brother leant against a tree, crying. Their mother, said a local man, had been injured when soldiers came into the village and opened fire with automatic rifles. In a house near the marketplace, the corpse of a man was stretched out under a sheet. In the undergrowth layother bodies. More than half a dozen people had been wounded in the shooting, we were told.

Officially, the killings in Rubirizi yesterday did not happen. Or, if they did, they were committed by extremist militias, not by government soldiers. The same is true of the dozens of murders that took place midweek when the army moved through the quartiers populaires of Kamenge and Gasenyi.

The men, women and children who died there, army commanders insist, were slaughtered by armed bandits.

There is no doubt the Burundian army has embarked on yet another rampage, butchering civilians because they are Hutus. There has been no official condemnation of the killings. On Wednesday, President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, said the military operation in Kamenge, in which dozens ofpeople were killed, had passed off peacefully. Neither the President, a Hutu, or the Prime Minister, Antoine Nduwayo, a Tutsi, have spoken out.

The special adviser to the Prime Minister, Nicodemus Nduhirubusa, asked me why the media were so concerned with Hutus being killed when, on Wednesday, nine Tutsis were murdered by the Hutu militia in the suburb of Musaga. That his government's security forces were implicated in the carnage at Kamenge and Gasenyi seemed not to concern him.

The United Nations special envoy to Burundi, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, while condemning the killings and calling for an official inquiry, has been noncommittal. Mr Abdallah said the killings may have been carried out by the army but also by Hutu or Tutsi militia groups.