Next Crisis in Central Africa: The Tanzania-Burundi Border

Fleeing Hutu rebels stir up Tutsi-led regime in Burundi

Anzania may be the next point of tension in Central Africa.

Pressure is mounting as Burundian Hutu rebels, routed recently from refugee camps in Zaire, make their way across Burundi to regroup in new bases in side Tanzania.

Aid workers report that fresh violence has rippled across Burundi's midsection as Hutu rebels travel east to Tanzania. They fled after Zaire's Uvira refugee camp fell to a mostly Tutsi rebel group last month.

Unlike Rwandan Hutu refugees in Tanzania, the Burundian refugees are sitting tight in their camps. Since Tanzania ordered a repatriation campaign for Rwandans Friday, up to 23,000 Rwandan Hutus have left their camps in northern Tanzania to hide in the bush, avoiding possible reprisals for the 1994 genocide against Tutsis.

"[The Burundis are] a separate case from that of the Rwandan refugees," says Peter Kessler, spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency in Nairobi.

Hutu insurgents who were pushed out of Burundi and neighboring Rwanda used refugee camps in eastern Zaire as bases from which to stage incursions for about two years. But a month ago, Zairean rebels sympathetic to Tutsi-led Rwanda and Burundi destroyed the camps and created a Tutsi buffer zone along the Zairean border with Rwanda and Burundi.

No one knows how many Burundian Hutu insurgents are in Tanzania now. But they are believed to be among about 78,000 Burundi refugees who have fled to Tanzania, swelling the number of refugees in camps to 190,000.

Cross-border raids are a major component in the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic strife that has torn Central Africa, killing more than 150,000 people in Burundi since late 1993.

Tanzania denies Burundi's claims that it is helping Hutu rebels. But the government of Burundi President Pierre Buyoya, who seized power in a July coup, insists Tanzania will do anything to destroy it.

And the Buyoya government points out that former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere is leading an economic blockade by neighboring countries to force democratic change in Burundi. Military intervention by outside forces is possible, Burundi government officials claim.

"We believe Tanzania has a hidden agenda and that it wants our government to collapse," says Buyoya's spokesman Jean-Luc Ndizeye. "I foresee tensions increasing over the coming months."

Whatever Tanzania's role, what is certain is that, since the Zairean refugee camps fell, violence has increased dramatically across Burundi.

International relief workers attribute the new fighting to strikes by Hutu rebels as they move across the country - and increased confidence by the Tutsi-led Army after years of military stalemate.

Jean-Luc Siblot, head of the UN World Food Program in Burundi, reports that since the camps fell a month ago, fighting has increased in Cibitoke, a traditional rebel frontier zone in the northwest.

Clashes have also erupted across the country, causing 80,000 to become internally displaced. Most people in Burundi's countryside are ethnic Hutus, who make up 85 percent of the population. Convinced that many civilians support the Hutu rebels, the government has rounded up many of the 45,000 refugees who have returned from Zaire over the past month and placed them in supervised camps.

The danger now is that with the Hutu opposition in disarray, the government will be less inclined to pursue a political solution. Buyoya's response to sanctions was muted: In September he said he would reinstate parliament and allow political parties to operate in a limited fashion. No progress was made on demands by the main Hutu party FRODEBU to reinstate a constitutional governmnent or open negotiations with the rebels.

Many FRODEBU leaders are now in exile, and former President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya remains in hiding at the US ambassador's residence in Bujumbura, where he sought refuge after the coup.

The difficult issue is how to share power between the Hutu majority and the Tutsis, who are 14 percent of the population but have dominated politics throughout Burundi's independence. Mindful of Rwanda's 1994 genocide of Tutsis, they want a large say in the government and Army for self-protection.

The lastest cycle of carnage began in 1993, when the country's first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated by Tutsi soldiers in a coup. An interim power-sharing government set up the following year was unable to halt the outbreak of ethnic violence.

Buyoya, who presents himself as a moderate, staged the July coup - his second since 1987 - saying he wanted to break the stalemate. But he is under pressure to placate extremists, and diplomats say he has scant room to maneuver.

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