Burundi Negotiates Careful Path To Avert Rwanda's Ethnic Strife

Interim leaders delay selecting a president to debate balance of power

BURUNDI, the southern neighbor of Rwanda, appears to have averted a new round of ethnic violence by postponing a deadline for selection of a new president.

As the July 12 constitutional deadline approached, government and opposition parties negotiating in a downtown hotel here agreed to delay the process by at least two months and continue talking.

``We want to avoid what happened in Rwanda,'' says Pierre Ndabihawe, a former civil servant who describes himself as a Tutsi moderate. ``The crisis has been ... postponed,'' says Cyrille Sigejeje, who heads a small Tutsi party in opposition to the government.

But ethnic tensions remain evident, with both the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority cautious about terms of power-sharing.

Ethnic clashes in Burundi in the past year have claimed at least 50,000 and perhaps 100,000 lives, according to estimates by Western diplomats, the United Nations, and Burudian officials.

According to Burundi government census figures, Burundi and Rwanda have the same ethnic mix of approximately 14 percent Tutsi and 85 percent Hutu.

The selection of a new president became necessary after Burundi's president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was killed April 6 when a rocket attack shot down the airplane carrying him and Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana. The latter's death unleashed a massive - and preplanned, according to the UN - wave of ethnic killings in Rwanda.

Burundi stayed calm (the target of the rocket attack appears to have been Habyarimana). But Burundian government and opposition parties are now sharply divided over who should be selected president, and over how and what limits should be placed on the president's power to curb further ethnic killings.

Jean Bikomagu, Army chief of staff, blames the postponement on ``extremist'' politicians and warned that a delay risks destabilizing Burundi. Politicians should stop ``playing the ethnic card'' here, he said during an interview in his office, which is guarded by troops and a tank. Mr. Bikomagu, a Tutsi, is himself described by critics as an ``extremist.''

Across town, interim President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, a Hutu and presidential hopeful, lives in a plush, hillside residence guarded by Hutu soldiers. His rival for the office, Charles Mukasi, is also a Hutu, but is favored by Tutsis and considered by his opponents to be more concerned about Tutsi than Hutu interests.

In Burundi, both the military and presidency have been in the hands of the Tutsis since independence in 1962 (Hutus control the Army in Rwanda). But in June 1993, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, won the presidency in an election allowed by then-Tutsi incumbent Pierre Buyoya, against the wishes of hard-line Tutsis.

President Ndadaye pushed many Tutsis from key civilian posts, talked of allowing large number of displaced Hutu refugees from earlier ethnic violence to return, and hinted at putting more Hutus in the military. ``He wanted to change everything at once,'' Mr. Ndabihawe says.

On Oct. 22, 1993, Ndadaye and several key Hutu officials were assassinated by the Tutsi Army. It is unclear whether the killers were backed by senior Tutsi Army officers. No one has been prosecuted for the murders. In the aftermath, Hutus slaughtered many Tutsis, and the Tutsi Army responded with a larger wave of killings of Hutus.

Ndadaye's successor, Ntaryamira, was blamed for trying to arm Hutu militia. But Hutus fear further attacks by the Tutsi Army, and Tutsis fear a Hutu president who might engineer more attacks against them. ``We want a Hutu [president] who won't kill [Tutsis],'' Mr. Sigejeje says.

``The Hutus are also worried,'' interim President Ntibantiunganya told the Monitor. ``Hutus were excluded [from power] during the last 30 years.

``What bothers the Tutsis is losing their monopoly on power,'' he adds. ``We want to assure all the people.... We'll do everything to try to avoid a civil war.''

But he refuses to criticize his Hutu presidential predecessors. Tutsi politicians do not trust him and call him an extremist. ``If we accept Sylvestre, he'll have to have limited powers,'' says Ignace Bankamwabo, head of a small Tutsi opposition party.

In negotiations with Ntibantunganya, the opposition has won his commitment to try to disarm Hutu civilian militia. But the militia have resisted with force.

The Tutsis are also seeking an agreement to allot key civilian posts to the Tutsi.

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