Burundi on Edge Over an 'Invasion'

African nations may provide military force to restore peace, but some Burundians object

In this deceptively calm capital, hundreds of teenage boys jog along the boulevards, an increasingly common sight in the past few weeks.

They say they are keeping fit to fight the enemy. Usually that means the Hutu rebels. But now there appears to be another potential adversary for these young Tutsi boys: foreign troops.

At an African summit two weeks ago in Arusha, Tanzania, the Burundi government agreed to request international military assistance to restore peace and security in Burundi. The international community, tired of a grinding war and leery of another potential Rwanda debacle, welcomed the development as a "turning point."

But the Arusha accords have suffered great criticism at home. Burundians accuse their leaders of sanctioning an invasion of their war-torn nation. And they demand to know what exactly the government has in mind.

"People doubt that international troops could stop the war here since they did not prevent bloodshed in Rwanda or Somalia or Liberia," says Agnes Nindorer, a resident of Bujumbura. "Most Burundians don't understand what the troops will come to do."

Ever since genocide in 1994 claimed more than a half-million lives in neighboring Rwanda, concern is great that Burundi, with its similar ethnic mix of 85 percent Hutus and 15 percent Tutsis, will follow.

About half-a-million Burundians have been killed in this tiny Central African nation of 6 million since independence in 1962, more than 150,000 of them since the nation's first democratically elected president was assassinated in 1993.

Indiscriminate killings

The latest slaughter occurred on Saturday, when aid workers said at least seven Hutus were killed by soldiers. The workers said it could have been in retaliation for an attack last week on a tea factory outside Bujumbura by armed Hutu gangs. They indiscriminately killed up to 100 people with bayonets and rifles. Victims, both Tutsis and Hutus, included women and children from a nearby refugee camp.

Political gridlock may explain why Burundi's conflict, unlike Rwanda's, has been brutal but contained and slow-burning. In Rwanda, the Hutu government that sponsored the genocide also controlled the military, thus allowing for a rapid extermination of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

In Burundi, the government is deadlocked, with a Hutu president and a Tutsi prime minister. Most observers agree that real power lies with a Tutsi-dominated Army at odds with the government.

Burundi's Hutu rebels have made significant advances in their bush war against the Army this year, but few Burundians think they can defeat the military.

An international intervention, however, is different. For the first time, many Tutsis consider their military power truly threatened.

Concerns over troops

President Sylvestre Ntibantuanganya has assured military leaders that foreign troops will be placed under Burundi command. But critics say such an arrangement would lend credence to an Army that has been accused of almost routinely killing civilians.

"The international community would be fools to send troops to support a military that they have previously denounced," says Innocent Muhozi, a journalist at Burundi's state-run television.

When the president and prime minister signed the Arusha accords, it came as a surprise to many since the two are usually not on speaking terms.

"It may appear as if they are saying the same thing, but they have very different objectives," Mr. Muhozi says. "The president wants foreign troops to come and protect him from the military. The prime minister wants foreign troops to come and support the Burundi military."

If an international mission is approved, forces will be recruited from neighboring African countries, such as Tanzania and Uganda. During a brief visit to Bujumbura last week, Richard Begosian, United States special coordinator for the region, called such a mission "an African solution to an African problem."

But many Burundians fear that African troops would not be neutral. "Most people believe that Ugandan troops will be fighting for the Tutsis and Tanzanian troops will be fighting for the Hutus," says Jean Nindorera of the National Democratic Council, a nongovernmental organization.

"It's not just the Tutsi Army fighting the Hutu rebels," adds journalist Muhozi. "In Burundi, the Army kills some Hutu civilians, while it protects others. The Hutu rebels kill Tutsis, but they also kill Hutu civilians."

Details on the recent attacks are scarce because few independent organizations still operate in the Burundian countryside.

"Everybody is scared. The phones are tapped; nobody wants to say anything that could be misinterpreted," says one aid worker, who did not want to be identified.

The government and the international community are banking on continuing negotiations in Arusha to end Burundi's spiraling ethnic violence. But talks seem to be stalled. While a regional technical commission is assigned to work out the details of a possible mission, Burundi officials have asked for more time.

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