From combined dispatches
BUJUMBURA, Burundi Splits and power struggles in the main Hutu rebel groups in Burundi led to an escalation of violence over the past week and cast doubt over the viability of the transitional “government of national unity” installed on Nov. 1.
Since Nov. 3, the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), one of two rebel armies drawn from Burundi’s Hutu majority, has been battling the army, which is dominated by the small Tutsi minority.
On Nov. 5 alone, about 30 civilians died during the fighting, which was concentrated in the east and south of the country. The army claimed to have killed 162 rebels; the rebels said about 50 soldiers died at their hands.
Bodies of civilians killed by bullets or bayonets on Nov. 6 and 7 were buried at Maranvya, about six miles north of Bujumbura, the capital, said relatives of the dead who returned to the scene.
The clashes broke out two days after the new government was sworn in on Nov. 1, a key stage of a process aimed at reconciling Burundi’s Hutus and Tutsis, who share power more or less equally in the new institutions.
However, a cease-fire with the rebels has not yet taken place.
The FDD and the other rebel group, the National Liberation Forces (FNL), did not take part in the negotiations that led politicians to sign a peace accord last year.
Early this year, the FNL, which is active in and around Bujumbura, ejected its leader, Cossan Kabura, for his willingness to negotiate with authorities in the capital. The FNL’s new leadership has adopted a harder line, putting conditions on any talks.
The FDD began negotiating with the government last year. But two months ago, its leader, Jean-Bosco Ndayikengurukiye, was expelled by rebel officers.
The FDD now has two rival wings, and both are involved in the latest fighting. But the group that ousted Mr. Ndayikengurukiye welcomed the installation of the transitional government on Nov. 1, and said it would continue to negotiate with the regime.
Local and foreign Burundi-watchers believe this wing of the FDD wants to reach an agreement as soon as possible. Its secretary-general, Hussein Radjabu, is considered close to the Front for Democracy in Burundi (Frodebu), the country’s main Hutu political party, which now has a large majority of government jobs under the Hutu-Tutsi accord.
Mr. Radjabu reportedly held several meetings with Frodebu President Jean Minani in Tanzania just before Mr. Ndayikengurukiye was sacked.
A close relationship between Frodebu and FDD may increase the chances of reaching a cease-fire soon with the rebel group.
But the intensifying rivalry between the two wings of the FDD, plus the intransigence of the FNL and the army’s responses, do not bode well for Burundi’s civilians, more than 250,000 of whom have died in ethnic fighting since 1993.
A Frodebu delegation left for Kigoma, across the border in western Tanzania, to open talks this week with Hutu hard-liners, party sources said. Representatives of the FDD also traveled to Kigoma, but a spokesman for the FNL told Agence France-Presse that faction would stay away. The FNL insists that it will negotiate with the army and nobody else.
Army spokesman Augustin Nzabampema said the army supports the peace initiative.
“Frodebu has sent a delegation with a clear message,” a party source told Reuters. “To suspend the hostilities and start negotiations with the national army. We have to show the armed groups that Frodebu will not allow civilians to remain the innocent victims of clashes between the army and the rebels.”
Although a minority in Burundi, the Tutsi ethnic group has maintained a stranglehold on both government and army for all but a few months since independence from Belgium in 1962.
The current ethnic war broke out in 1993 after Tutsi extremists killed the country’s first democratically elected president Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu and has since devastated the tiny African country.
The transitional government inaugurated Nov. 1 is to rule until 2004. Frodebu has the most seats in the government headed by President Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi, since it is the main force among Hutu parties, which represent some 85 percent of the population.
Mr. Buyoya has a Hutu vice president, and the two ethnic groups are to switch leadership posts in 18 months, halfway through the transition.
But fighting on the ground has intensified since Nov. 1, and scores of youths have been kidnapped from schools, in what aid workers fear is an attempt to enlist child soldiers or find human shields.
Last week, between 250 and 300 boys and young men were seized in one such incident; all but about 20 of them managed to escape. Another 200 or so boys between the ages of 10 and 13 were reported abducted at two other schools in eastern Burundi.
In Geneva, the United Nations Children’s Fund said Tuesday that more recently, Hutu rebels had abducted 107 Burundian children from border refugee camps in Tanzania and that only two of them escaped.
In Brussels, the European Union said Tuesday it is willing to provide financial, logistical and political support to Burundi in reaching a cease-fire and disarming the rebels.
“The European Union is disposed to politically supporting negotiations already under way toward a cease-fire,” said a statement from Belgium, which holds the rotating EU presidency.
Elsewhere, human-rights activists in Nairobi, Kenya, appealed yesterday for the release of schoolboys kidnapped by Hutu rebels in Burundi, calling on peace mediator Nelson Mandela and the United Nations to intervene.
“A strong denunciation by Mandela and by the [U.N.] Security Council might convince the rebels to free the students,” said Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “It might even persuade the FDD to leave children at their books instead of pushing guns into their hands.”
Mr. Mandela, a former political prisoner and South Africa’s first president under black-majority rule, was to address the Security Council this week. He orchestrated the negotiations for Burundi’s three-year peace plan.