Since 1993, fighting between Burundi's Hutu majority and the Tutsi elite has killed more than 150,000 people. Last week, the Tutsi-led army overthrew the democratically elected government and installed its own leader, Maj. Pierre Buyoya.
Western governments have rightly condemned the coup, and African regional leaders, who met Wednesday, resolved to impose sanctions on the new regime.
It remains to be seen how effective sanctions would be in stopping the most immediate threat to this Central African country: ethnic slaughter between Hutu and Tutsi. It was only two years ago that Hutu hard-liners killed half a million Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda.
Major Buyoya insists that he wants to end the violence in Burundi. That is probably true: He is not known as a Tutsi hard-liner. Though he overthrew President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza in 1987, he called for free elections six years later. When the Hutu majority voted him out of office, Buyoya left willingly and went on to establish the Foundation for Peace, Unity and Democracy, which has received some American financial support. Before he left, he issued a charter outlining equal rights for all citizens.
But a military coup is rarely the way "to rescue the population," as Buyoya claims. Diplomats predict that Hutu rebels now will intensify their attacks, primarily on civilians in the countryside. From Brussels, the main Hutu rebel group recently called for calm but then added, "Together we will definitively crush this dictatorial military regime."
Preventive diplomatic efforts must continue, but to avoid the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Burundian civilians, the United Nations should be prepared to provide a military presence.
Former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere has said he would assemble an East African peacekeeping force from Chad, Malawi, Zambia, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. The group would call on Western nations, including the United States, to provide both logistical and financial support.
A major stumbling block is the Burundian army's resistance to the idea of a foreign military presence, as well as Buyoya's own reluctance. Many question the wisdom of sending troops if the government rejects them.
Buyoya has been meeting with East African leaders, trying to establish his credibility. Those leaders and other diplomats would be more willing to accept him if he, in turn, would accept outside help. Hundreds of thousands of lives may depend on it.