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Friday, 25 August, 2000, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
Burundi's deadly deadlock
Burundi refugees
Six years of violence and uncertainty for Burundi's people
By Africa reporter Virginia Gidley-Kitchin

Burundi's current troubles date back to 1993. A former Belgian trust territory with a population of six million, Burundi seemed poised to enter a new era with the holding of its first, and so far, only democratic elections since independence in 1961.

A coup attempt followed President Ndadaye's death in 1993
After decades of domination by the Tutsi minority, Burundians chose their first Hutu head of state, Melchior Ndadaye, and a parliament dominated by the mainly Hutu Frodebu party.

But within months, President Ndadaye was assassinated by army paratroopers, and the scene was set for years of often violent confrontation between the Hutu and Tutsi political classes.

Many members of the Tutsi elite, particularly in the armed forces, feared they would be swamped by a full-scale democracy. Some felt that only a power-sharing agreement with Hutus could protect them, while others simply didn't want to surrender power.

Wave of violence

Many Hutu politicians felt cheated because they had won the elections and their ethnic group represented an estimated 85 % of the population. However it was the ordinary people in the countryside, Tutsis as well as Hutus, who bore the brunt of the violence which has taken on the proportions of an undeclared civil war.

Cyprien Ntaryamira
Cyprien Ntaryamira: Death in plane crash renewed crisis
The coup attempt that followed President Ndadaye's assassination failed, but it set off a wave of ethnic violence, in which tens of thousands were killed and more displaced.

The political crisis lasted until early 1994 when parliament elected another Hutu as president, Cyprien Ntaryamira. However President Ntaryamira was killed in a plane crash in April 1994 - the same one that killed the president of neighbouring Rwanda, sparking off the genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus there.

In Burundi, however, violence was contained. Amid general agreement that the security situation ruled out further elections, the main political parties began negotiations on how to choose a successor to President Ndadaye and on a power-sharing agreement for government. Another so-called moderate Hutu, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, was eventually appointed president and took over officially in October 1994.

Tutsis allege discrimination

Sylvestre Ntibantunganya
Sylvestre Ntibantunganya: "Moderate" Hutu accused of discrimination
But within months there was trouble again: the mainly Tutsi Uprona party, which had governed Burundi for almost all the period since independence, withdrew from the government and parliament over allegations of pro-Hutu bias.

By the time it returned, the confrontation had sparked off a new wave of ethnic violence. In early 1996, rogue elements of the Tutsi-led armed forces and extremist Hutu groups such as Palipehutu and the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD) were reported to be carrying out atrocities against civilians almost daily.

International initiative

By this time, the international community felt it could stand aside no longer. In November 1995, meeting at the UN secretary-general's request, Burundi and its neighbours agreed on a sub-regional peace initiative, including mediation by the former Tanzanian President, Julius Nyerere. Mr Nyerere's his role was later endorsed by the Organisation of African Unity.

Pierre Buyoya
Pierre Buyoya: Seized power in bloodless coup
But the first two rounds of peace talks appeared to exacerbate the political tensions, with Uprona accusing Hutu parties of trying to overturn the power-sharing agreement. In July 1996 President Ntibantunganya went into hiding and Major Pierre Buyoya seized power - for the second time - in a bloodless coup.

In a rare show of resolve, Burundi's regional neighbours immediately imposed economic sanctions on the country in an effort to persuade Major Buyoya to restore democracy. The sanctions have now been suspended, but Burundi has remained something of a pariah state because of the political deadlock.

Major Buyoya has co-opted the main Hutu party, Frodebu, into government in an attempt to give the impression that he is liberalising his rule. But successive rounds of peace talks among the Burundian political parties in the Tanzanian town of Arusha have failed to agree on the issue of the Burundian army's role.

'Concentration camps'

Julius Nyerere
Julius Nyerere: Mediator's death left problems unresolved
Meanwhile, security inside the country has steadily deteriorated. Frustrated at its inability to prevent rebel attacks, the army in 1996 embarked on a controversial policy of forcing Hutu civilians out of their homes into so-called regroupment sites, to clear the way for offensives against the rebels.

The government said this was for the civilians' own protection - the Hutu rebels say it was to stop the civilians from helping them. In September 1999, after a major relocation exercise near the capital, Bujumbura, the United Nations estimated there were more than 800,000 people - 12% of the population - in these sites which the rebels call concentration camps.

'Rebel bases'

A further 300,000 Burundians are in refugee camps in Tanzania, which the Burundian Government says are used as bases by some of the rebels.

Mr Nyerere's death in October 1999 raised questions about the future of the Burundi peace talks.

But new hopes emerged when former South African President Nelson Mandela stepped in as meditator in February 2000.

Mr Mandela secured a commitment from the Burundian Government to start dismantling the "regroupment camps", but so far it has not completed the process.

And he has made progress in the peace talks - yet the violence has continued.

It remains to be seen whether the former South African president will succeed, where Mr Nyerere failed, in ending the conflict estimated to have cost more than 200,000 lives since 1993.

Louise Tunbridge reports from Burundi
Civilians have no one to turn to for protection

Key stories

See also:

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