US warns of 'whirlwind of killing' in Burundi

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More than 15,000 panic-stricken Rwandan refugees were said to be scattered along the Tanzanian border last night, having fled their camp in north- eastern Burundi during the weekend. Their flight followed that of some 15,000 Rwandans from another camp which was reportedly attacked by Burundian soldiers on Saturday.

The refugee crisis has provoked growing fears about Burundi's stability. The United States ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, warned during a weekend visit to Bujumbura that the country will tumble into a whirlwind of killing unless its political and military leaders take evasive action. "The political situation in Burundi has been tenuous for some time and we want to make it clear that this country will be isolated if any group tries to take power by force," she said.

The Rwandan refugees arrived in Burundi having fled their homeland ahead of the victorious advance of Tutsi-dominated rebels seeking to end the genocide which decimated Rwanda in 1994. But now they are also the target of attacks in Burundi.

Some 20 Rwandan Hutus are believed to have been killed and scores injured in an attack on Mugano, a refugee camp near Tanzania, and around 14,000 then fled to Tanzania, where they were given temporary sanctuary.

Only 400 of the refugees from Ntamba camp, however, have been allowed to cross the border into Tanzania. The rest have been told to turn back. The Tanzanian government, which has already allowed more than 700,000 Rwandan Hutus to settle within its borders, has long insisted that it does not have the resources to support such a large refugee population.

This weekend's exodus of Rwandan Hutus towards Tanzania echoes events at the end of last March, when more than 50,000 Rwandan refugees left their camp in northern Burundi after an attack by the Tutsi-dominated Burundian army. In that incident, Tanzania closed its borders, leaving the refugees stranded by the roadside, unable to continue and afraid to return to their camp.

There are now more than 135,000 Rwandan Hutus living in camps in Burundi. Nearly 2 million Rwandan Hutus fled their country after the overthrow of the extremist Hutu regime which masterminded the 1994 genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Most of the refugees are refusing to return home, fearing revenge attacks and persecution by surviving Tutsis. The attacks on Rwandan refugees in Burundi are symptomatic of the growing violence gripping the country, which has the same ethnic mix as its neighbour: 85 per cent Hutu and 15 per cent Tutsi. Many fear that Burundi could fall victim to a genocidal cataclysm similar to that which left nearly a million dead in Rwanda the year before last.

The Burundian government, an uneasy coalition of Hutu and Tutsi parties, seems paralysed as the country slides deeper into war.