Militias bring war to Burundi

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CIVIL WAR is inevitable in Burundi unless the leading parties denounce the militias terrorising the population, a former president of the central African nation said yesterday. Pierre Buyoya, president from 1987 to 1993, warned that his country would follow neighbouring Rwanda into chaos if its politicians were not prepared to work towards reconciliation between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority.

Meanwhile tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees halted their march on the closed Tanzanian border but resisted entreaties to turn around and return to their camps. The massive exodus of up to 50,000 Rwandan refugees began on Thursday and stalled on Friday after Tanzania closed its border with Burundi. Most of the refugees rested yesterday in a squalid and hastily thrown up squatter camp 35 miles from the Tanzanian border.

For the second time in 18 months, Burundi is being convulsed by ethnic violence. Up to 200 Hutus were massacred in the capital last week. Tutsi militias, backed by the army, are behind the carnage. Since an attack on a refugee camp last week which left 12 dead, tension has been rising in Ngozi province, which holds more than 100,000 displaced Rwandans.

"The problem in Burundi is not so much the strength of the extremists and the militias, which is considerable," said Mr Buyoya, who is a Tutsi, "but the weakness of moderate politicians who could calm the situation. It's come to the stage where government ministers are losing control of events. Even the President (Sylvestre Ntibantunganya) and the Prime Minister (Antoine Nduwayo) are paralysed and unable to do anything."

Despite being in the majority both in government and in the population at large, Hutus are marginalised in commerce and increasingly in areas such as education and the health service. Their frustration has been growing since October 1993, when the first democratically-elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated and up to 50,000 people, mainly Hutus, were killed in subsequent fighting. Among the dead were many of the Hutu lite and intellectuals, leaving a political vacuum in the majority Hutu Frodebu party.

The rise of the Hutu militias, who are supported by a number of shadowy, extremist politicians, is largely seen as a result of their impotence to overcome the undue influence of the opposition. The army has long been regarded as a repository of Tutsi strength.

"The army is held to be impartial by Uprona (the minority Tutsi party in government) and even the prime minister has said that bullets have no choice - they are indiscriminate between Hutus and Tutsis," Labour Minister Venerand Bakevyumusaya, a Hutu, said on Friday. "But in this country bullets do seem to have a choice - they always kill Hutus."

The Tutsi militias who carried out "ethnic cleansing" operations in two mixed districts of Bujumbura last week have been increasingly active, not only in the capital, which is now seen as a largely Tutsi city, but also in other towns around the country. Hutus in Ngozi to the north and in Muyinga to the east have been subjected to intimidation and violence in recent weeks.

Mr Buyoya's presidential predecessor, Jean-Baptise Bagaza, has criticised the current President, Mr Ntibantunganya, and the majority Frodebu party for failing to stop the growing unrest in Burundi.

"We are now experiencing civil war in this country", he said on Friday, "with militias on both sides making the ethnic problems worse."