Refugee Flight Threatens to Spread Fighting in Region


AMID conflicting reports of widespread ethnic slaughter in Burundi following last week's military coup, some African diplomats in the region see a danger of the conflict spilling over into neighboring countries.

Some 250,000 Burundi refugees already have fled to neighboring Rwanda, according to officials with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Rwanda. Others are reported to have fled to neighboring Zaire and Tanzania.

Politically, Rwanda has the same ethnic mix as Burundi - about 85 percent Hutu and 14 percent Tutsi, raising concerns that refugees arriving from Burundi might increase ethnic tensions in Rwanda.

Whether or not this happens ``depends on how the political parties [handle it]'' in Rwanda, says Cyprien Habimana, Rwandan Ambassador to Kenya.

The Oct. 21 coup was carried out by the Tutsi-dominated military against the government of a newly elected Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye, who was reportedly killed. Elected in June, Mr. Ndadaye was the country's first Hutu President.

Prime Minister Sylvie Kinigi and several members of her Cabinet have taken refuge in the French Embassy in Bujumbura, the capital.

To prevent a regional conflict and restore law and order in Burundi, diplomats of the deposed Burundi government, and of Rwanda, are calling for foreign intervention.

So far, no government has indicated any willingness to send troops, though several, including the US, have suspended aid to Burundi.

``It's a conflict that risks becoming regional,'' says Joseph Bangurambona, Burundi's ambassador to Kenya. ``The countries in the region should aid us. We need an intervention of foreign troops.''

Asked if he wanted United Nations troops, he said it takes too long to get the UN to approve and dispatch troops. ``In the whole country there are massacres'' right now, Ambassador Bangurambona says. The Army is enraged at reports that some other ministers of the deposed government are in hiding in the capital, and are now conducting house-to-house searches for them, he says.

Rwandan Ambassador Habimana told the Monitor: ``There is no question; massacres are going on.'' He says troops in Bujumbura are rounding up Hutu intellectuals and others and taking them to military barracks. ``I think the Hutu are determined to resist,'' Ambassador Habimana adds. ``The killings are on both sides.''

It was impossible to verify the scope of the reported massacres or know if the deposed Burundi government was exaggerating the issue to prompt international intervention that would help restore them to power.

So far, one of the only eye-witness reports of killing is by Harvey Le Guillumzis, medical coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Mr. Le Guillumzis told reporters in Bujumbura he had seen 25 charred bodies of young men in a burned schoolhouse in central Burundi. Area residents told him the men apparently were Tutsi.

But a Belgian diplomat in Bujumbura said in telephone interview that the center of the city was calm. ``Stores are open.... There are many cars; people are shopping,'' he says. In at least one rural area he has received reports that things are also calm.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.