UN chief confirms death toll as fears of Burundi genocide grow

The UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, urged the Security Council last night to watch closely the situation in Burundi, where violence between Hutus and Tutsis has claimed hundreds of lives in recent days. He said that while there was "no definitive figure on the people killed, the range seems to be from 200 to 500".

Mr Boutros-Ghali was speaking to representatives of the five permanent members of the Security Council after Burundi's President, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, described last week's killings as "the beginning of genocide". An estimated 500 people were killed as the army, almost exclusively Tutsi, attacked Hutu areas in the capital, Bujumbura. It is feared Burundi will follow the same path as its neighbour, Rwanda. Thousands have fled the capital. Speaking on Belgian radio yesterday, Mr Ntibantunganya said: "The victims [Hutus] are ethnically targeted and the perpetrators are from another ethnic group [Tutsi] ... Burundi has to be watched very carefully to avoid catastrophe."

It is hard to see what the UN can do in a hurry to support Mr Ntibantunganya's fragile coalition government, which balances unsteadily over a cauldron of volatile ethnic politics. His two predecessors have been murdered in the past two years; many politicians in both ethnic groups have links to the armed extremist groups and know they can provoke an outbreak of killing with a word. Revenge murders have flared in the past two years but circumstances have not led to massacres on the scale of Rwanda - so far.

Burundi was ruled for its first 30 years by a Tutsi lite, although the ethnic group is only 10 to 15 per cent of the population. They maintain almost exclusive control of the army. Extremist Tutsis are trying by force to maintain their position, while some Hutus, seeing how the Tutsi army murdered their president and massacred thousands of Hutus in 1993, feel that only force can secure their political rights. There are signs that the extremist Hutu leaders driven out of Rwanda last year are linking with counterparts in Burundi and of collaboration between Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi.

Meanwhile, Robin Cook, the Labour Party's foreign-affairs spokesman, has described jail conditions in Kigali, Rwanda, where 8,000 are huddled in a prison made for 2,000, as being like the "lower decks of slave ships''. "Conditions in Kigali prison are worse than in the refugee camps in Goma and they get worse daily," Mr Cook said. Each week 1,500 people are arrested in connection with last year's massacres and hundreds are brought to Kigali prison. A week ago 20 prisoners suffocated in an overcrowded cell.

Mr Cook urged European countries to help the new government to provide the means to dispense justice. He said it was a scandal that one year after the Rwanda tragedy not a single ringleader of the genocide had been brought before the international tribunal set up to try them. "The real injustice would be if the peasants who took part in the massacres were tried and punished and the ringleaders got away scot free."

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