Burundi unrest deepens as rebel groups multiply and coup trial begins

The government has cracked down hard in the wake of violent opposition to the president's controversial third term.

Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana/Reuters
Burundian police officers collected a cache of weapons recovered from suspected fighters after clashes in the capital Bujumbura, Burundi, Saturday.

Former security officials accused of organizing a May coup attempt in Burundi were charged Monday, just days after the capital was hit with the worst violence since President Pierre Nkurunziza declared his candidacy for a disputed third term in April.

Former defense minister Cyrille Ndayirukiye was among the 28 people standing trial in the central town of Gitega. Though the coup was swiftly foiled,the government cracked down hard, forcing thousands to flee to neighboring countries and prompting some of the opposition to begin taking up arms.

On Dec. 11, an unknown number of gunmen stormed three military bases, killing 15 people, the Associated Press reported. The attackers were trying to seize weapons, the military says. Those attacks were followed by what some analysts say were retaliatory actions by the military in some of the city's neighborhoods, bringing the death toll to 87. 

“This is by the far the most serious incident, with the highest number of victims, since the start of the crisis in April,” Human Rights Watch researcher Carina Tertsakian said in a statement. “The armed attacks on military facilities on 11 December were serious, and the Burundian government has a responsibility to restore law and order. However, going out and shooting people in residential neighborhoods appears entirely unjustified, and the members of the security forces responsible should be held to account.”

The government, however, said that “the people found in the streets are attackers who have been killed by the security," Karerwa Ndenzako, a government spokesman, told The New York Times. Witnesses claim that civilians were pulled out of their houses and killed, and their bodies left on the street for hours.

The charges against Mr. Ndayirukiye and the coup plotters come as the political crisis deepens over Nkurunziza’s third term – he was reelected in July – with the government and opposition failing to arrive at a compromise. Instead, tit-for-tat killings are on the rise, with Western powers and the United Nations worried that the violence could escalate into genocide and destabilize a region with strong memories of neighboring Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

Foreign Policy reported on the growing number of rebel militias:

Little is known about the size or capacity of the armed opposition, which is thought to consist of several organized rebel groups based in the country’s interior as well as militias that have clashed with police in the capital.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint who exactly we are talking about when it comes to insurgent groups because they are not under a single command,” said Yolande Bouka, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi. They operate independently and it’s not clear that they are collaborating. They all have loose ties with members of the political opposition, but they operate independently and it’s not clear they are collaborating.”

What is clear is that they are organizing themselves around the idea of removing Nkurunziza from power, The Wall Street Journal reports: 

“There’s no declaration of war,” said the leader of [one] militia, a former soldier. “But we are trying to change this regime as soon as possible. Without violence is better.” Still, he said, they throw grenades at police to keep them from entering their neighborhoods, or sometimes set explosives when they find out where the patrols are headed.

The groups are stockpiling weapons and say they have created a clear chain of command – with community captains answering to commanders at the city and national level. The government said Friday’s attack appeared to be an effort to grab more weapons and to free opposition prisoners....

While many opposition politicians have fled the country, the handful who remain are alsocalling for the president to step aside and warning that violence will increase if he doesn’t.

By Saturday morning, Bujumbura, Burundi's capital, quickly bounced back to action with the opening of stores. But the growing instability is prompting foreign evacuations, with the US government directing Americans to leave as soon as possible Sunday, a month after Belgium made a similar request to Belgian citizens living in its former colony.  

US Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted Sunday that the killing must end, including "disproportionate response by security services."

More than 220,000 people have fled the violence to neighboring Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Congo over fears that Burundi could slide back into a ethnically-fueled civil war similar to the one it emerged from a decade ago. 

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