JOHANNESBURG — Last week's coup in Burundi has stoked concerns of a worsened ethnic war between Hutus and Tutsis and forced the world to contemplate whether military intervention can really save the central African country from catastrophe.
Thursday's Army-backed coup brought Army Maj. Pierre Buyoya to power, ousted the largely powerless Hutu President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, and removed all vestiges of a tattered democracy.
The putsch ended a fragile multi-ethnic coalition and has heightened prospects of more fighting between the Tutsi-dominated Army and militias from the Hutu majority. The violence has killed 150,000 people since 1993. Hutus make up 85 percent of the population and Tutsis only 14 percent. But the Tutsi ethnic group dominate the Army. With the coup, Hutu participation in the government has effectively ended.
The UN and Burundi's neighbors, remembering their inability to prevent the 1994 genocide of up to 1 million people in neighboring Rwanda, are discussing sending peacekeeping troops into Burundi.
But Major Buyoya on Friday urged against military intervention - and some political analysts agree that ignoring his warning would only fuel disaster.
"Talk of an international intervention is making the violence worse - everyone is trying to strengthen their positions in case it happens," says Gerard Prunier, a French political scientist. The discussion of an intervention force at a recent regional summit in Arusha, Tanzania, may actually have encouraged last week's coup by pushing Burundi's Army to believe it had to quickly consolidate its power, says Mr. Prunier, an authority on Rwanda and Burundi.
The regional intervention plan was opposed by Tutsi military leaders and Hutu militias. The militias, whose leaders are largely based in Zaire, worry that foreign troops would line up against them on the side of the Tutsi-led government Army.
The UN last week called upon members to commit troops to an intervention force for Burundi. So far, only Chad, Malawi, and Zambia have come forth. South Africa, which has Africa's biggest army, is resisting pressure to get too involved in Burundi. Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo said last week that sending South African troops is not possible now, although logistical assistance would be considered.
In any case, some observers question the wisdom of sending such a force without the Burundi government's support.
"The international community cannot impose a solution on Burundi," says a senior French government official. "Besides, where would the troops, money, and resources come from?"
Western and African governments have condemned the seizure of power by Buyoya, who staged a coup in 1987 and then ruled until October 1993, when he was defeated in the first democratic elections by Hutu Melchior Ndadaye. This vicious spiral of violence erupted after October 1993, when Mr. Ndadaye was killed by Tutsi soldiers in a coup.
FOREIGN aid workers predict a major crisis in the region if the conflict explodes further and hundreds of thousands of Burundi refugees join the more than 2 million from their country and Rwanda who have fled to neighboring Zaire and Tanzania.
Everyone wants to avoid a repeat of what happened in Rwanda, another tiny, densely populated country with the same ethnic makeup - 85 percent Hutu, 14 percent Tutsi, and 1 percent Twa.
But observers doubt that Burundi would suffer such a well-coordinated genocide. They note that in Rwanda, the majority Hutus controlled the military and government, which enabled them to kill so many Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In Burundi, however, the minority Tutsis are in a military stalemate with Hutu militias. There are large parts of the country where the Army has no control.
Foreign intervention in Burundi could actually worsen rather than defuse the situation, according to South African parliamentarian Jan van Eck, who has visited Burundi repeatedly on behalf of the Cape Town-based Centre for Conflict Resolution. Mr. Van Eck told the Johannesburg-based Saturday Star that Burundi's Army might react by fighting foreign troops and forming more militias. He says that the coup may actually encourage negotiations between the foes.
"The Tutsis will rally behind this government, and the Hutu majority will rally around the rebel movements.... This can lead to civil war but, as they realize that neither side can win, they will look seriously at ... negotiations."