Thousands of Burundian refugees flee tribal conflict

The government of Burundi has imposed a nationwide curfew and travel restrictions which make it impossible for independent observers to visit areas where thousands of people were reportedly massacred last week. Authorities in the tiny central African nation of Burundi said yesterday at least 5,000 people were killed during ethnic clashes.

Burundi's foreign minister, Cyprien Mbonimpa, issued the government's first official estimate of the number killed in the massacre in a communiqu'e given to foreign diplomats at a Monday morning briefing.

An estimated 38,000 people have fled across the border to Rwanda, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

What is being referred to as ``tribal slaughter'' has been going on for more than a week in Burundi's northern districts, pitting the Tutsi, who, although the minority, dominate the nation's politics and Army, against the Hutu, who are the majority.

The Hutu and the Tutsi are longtime enemies. Following an abortive coup attempt in 1972 in Burundi, a former Belgium colony, the Tutsi massacred 100,000 to 300,000 Hutu, including most of the tribe's intelligentsia.

Burundi and Rwanda are among the world's most densely populated nations, and Rwandan officials said their resources were being strained by the large influx of refugees.

Nearly 5 million people live in Burundi, which is about the size of the state of Maryland. Rwanda, which is slightly smaller than Burundi, has 6 million people. In both nations, Hutu make up about 85 percent of the population; Tutsi the remainder.

Burundi has said most of last week's victims were Tutsi, but an exiled opposition group, the Hutu People's Liberation Party, accused the Tutsi-dominated military of massacring Hutus.

A diplomatic source said there was no evidence of this.

Refugees, however, are recounting horrifying tales of Army reprisals against thousands of defenseless peasants in one of Africa's most densely-populated lands.

Some refugees have said the killings began on Aug. 13 or 14 after soldiers tried to round up several educated Hutu in the hilly countryside of Marangara district. Local Hutu, fearing that the Army was preparing for a massacre, began killing the local Tutsi, these accounts said.

According to refugees, reinforcements from the Tutsi-dominated Army arrived in northern districts at mid-week and launched reprisal massacres against the Hutu.

Code Cisse, representative in Rwanda of the UNHCR toured the border area over the weekend and told Reuters on Sunday night:

``We cannot talk about a civil war because only one side is armed. It has become a massacre by the Burundian Army,'' said Mr. Cisse.

The Burundian government declared in the statement Sunday that the situation had returned to normal after ``bloody events.''

But a Reuter correspondent visiting the frontier during the talks heard shots fired on the Burundian side and saw people fleeing across the Akanyaru River to Rwanda by dugout canoe.

``The soldiers opened fire on the crowd,'' he told Reuters on Sunday. ``Helicopters pursued and gunned down people who tried to escape.''

Rwandan Army officers at the border have also reported seeing helicopters flying over adjoining areas of Burundi and refugees report both helicopters and armored personnel carriers being used in the massacres.

According to Hutu refugees in Rwanda, Burundian soldiers went from house to house in some provinces last week, bayoneting to death Hutu men, women, and children.

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