THE United States has withdrawn its ambassador to Burundi, Robert Krueger. He is officially ''home for consultations.'' Unofficially, the State Department will not allow him to return, fearing for his life.
After 15 grenade attacks against relief staff on a single evening in December, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Food Program, and nearly all other nongovernmental organizations have suspended their humanitarian activities in Burundi. Warning that the country ''might explode into ethnic violence on a massive scale,'' and concerned about the rapid withdrawal of international aid workers and dignitaries, United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali recently asked the Security Council to deploy a rapid-reaction force. The world's major powers said no.
Burundi is next door to Rwanda, and its population of 6 million has roughly the same ethnic makeup: 85 percent Hutu and 15 percent Tutsi. Extremists and their armed supporters, using countrywide ethnic murder and terror in their bid for political gains, are driving Burundi to the brink of national suicide.
Wave of ethnic killings
A wave of killings has claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians each week, and the Tutsi-dominated military and its auxiliary forces have ethnically cleansed Bujumbura, the capital. A rural Hutu insurgency is fighting back, targeting both Tutsi civilians and the military. In his last report, the UN's special rapporteur for human rights in Burundi warned that ''a smoldering civil war was spreading further and further in Burundi,'' giving rise to ''an increasingly marked genocidal trend.''
At Burundi's worst moment of crisis, the US and the world are pulling up stakes. Although a handful of well-intentioned American diplomats supports strong engagement, the top echelon of the administration wants to bail out, citing security concerns. We ''don't want to risk a situation where one of our people is lost on the ground,'' a US ambassador to the area says. Returning this weekend from a visit to Burundi, Madeleine Albright, US ambassador to the UN, threatened that the US ''will lead an international effort to isolate'' any extremist regime that takes power. Such withdrawal will leave the field open for an extremist onslaught and its genocidal consequences.
Burundian political and military extremists would like nothing better than for the international community to leave so that they can deliver their final death blows and complete their overthrow of the nation's last vestiges of democratic rule.
An extremist Tutsi newspaper, La Nation, has printed death threats against both the US ambassador and the UN special representative. In a replay of Rwanda's propaganda campaign two years ago, a Hutu-extremist ''Radio Truth'' has spread hate messages aimed at destabilization. Hutu extremists have formed an underground army that is currently training jointly with troops of the former Rwandan army and militia; they are using a northern corner of the country to launch insurgencies.
Just as radical and violent as the extremist forces is the Tutsi-dominated military, which has been implicated in the October 1993 assassination of the country's first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye. Army factions continue to be implicated in the ongoing massacres and killing sprees that have taken more than 100,000 lives in the past two years.
A UN-sponsored Commission of Inquiry set up to investigate the October 1993 assassination and the subsequent massacres of at least 50,000 people has no international protection for its handful of staff. This team has already become a target for violence: Burundians who have cooperated have been killed, and team members are holed up in their hotel rooms.
The US has underestimated or ignored the power these extremists wield and is now running scared from their campaign of terror. The stated American policy of ''bolstering the moderates'' has failed. As assassination targets, many moderate parliamentarians and government ministers are unable to leave their homes to conduct official business. Reliance on shuttle diplomacy to bring about power-sharing between the governing FRODEBU Party and the opposition coalition, led by UPRONA, was the equivalent of trying to put out a fire without water.
A 'big stick' for peace
Only a more-robust engagement by the US and the international community - wielding a ''big stick'' - can secure Burundi against a bloodbath on a massive scale. This would back up the White House's Dec. 22, 1995, statement that the US will ''continue to work with the international community to defuse tensions in Burundi and prevent further violence.''
To be successful this time around, the US and others, rather than withdrawing, should undertake a series of measures:
* Fund and deploy the UN human rights monitors already approved for Burundi.
* Help reform the politicized and Tutsi-dominated judiciary by funding and providing outside magistrates.
* Help create an integrated police force to rein in the country's extremist forces.
* Activate the UN's new military-contingency/strategic-planning unit.
* Support the dismantling of hate media.
* Cut off external support for militias by revoking visas, freezing bank accounts, and restricting diplomatic activity.
* Exert pressure for reform of the Army by placing conditions on foreign aid to the military, requiring it to discipline its ranks, and imposing an arms embargo upon it until it punishes soldiers for past and present human rights abuses.
* Protect and financially support the UN Commission of Inquiry.
Two years ago, the world abandoned Rwanda just long enough to allow the massacre of over 500,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians, which was organized by a small and identifiable group of Hutu extremists. Similarly, extremists in Burundi would like nothing better than for the international community to leave the country so that they can deliver their final death blows and usurp power.