Kampala — Talks aimed at a settlement to Burundi's violent political divide are due to start in neighbouring Tanzania on Wednesday, but the government is taking a hard line over what it considers interference in its internal affairs.
It insists it will not open dialogue with members of the opposition involved in an attempted coup in May, and has rejected plans by the African Union to deploy 5,000 peacekeepers to protect civilians, threatening to attack the force should it deploy.
An initial meeting in Uganda under AU-appointed mediator President Yoweri Museveni was designed to clear away the hurdles, but it failed to make serious headway. It left the AU threatening unspecified sanctions should any of the sides fail to turn up in Arusha, Tanzania, on 6 January.
"The Burundian government's responses so far are disappointing, but those facilitating the talks should not give up. Sustained regional and international pressure is essential to persuade the government, as well as the opposition, to adopt measures to end the killings in Burundi," Carina Tertsakian, Human Rights Watch senior researcher on Burundi, told IRIN.
International concern has mounted over the violence in Burundi since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans to run for a controversial third term in office, and his subsequent election win in July. The fear is that as killings intensify - the UN estimates that so far 400 people have died - Burundi could slip into civil war, with the army splitting along ethnic lines.
"The government has a particular responsibility to ensure that its security forces stop targeting people simply because they are suspected government opponents or because they happen to be young men living in so-called opposition neighbourhoods," said Tertsakian.
What are the prospects of the peace talks?
At the Uganda meeting on 28 December, the Burundian government rejected calls by Museveni for an amnesty for members of the opposition alliance National Council for the Restoration of Arusha Agreement and Rule of Law - known by the French acronym "CNARED" - who were implicated in the coup attempt that aimed to stop Nkurunziza's third-term bid.
Nkurunziza was able to rally loyal troops, and the putsch was snuffed out after two days of fighting.
The government has branded CNARED a "terrorist organisation," and accused it of being behind attacks on security forces and of recruiting among refugees living in neigbouring countries. The AU regards CNARED, which includes two former presidents and a range of civil society leaders, as the umbrella for all opposition groups.
"If the people we have evidence against [for] participating in the coup show up in the [negotiating] room, we get out. It's a simple as that," Alain Aimé Nyamitwe, Burundi's foreign minister and the head of the government delegation, told reporters in Uganda.
"Why should we be talking about [giving] immunity for some, while others are facing justice in Bujumbura? Why, in your view, can Burundi continue to go with the trend of impunity or pardon for irresponsible politicians?"
Although Jean Minani, the chair of the opposition negotiators, told IRIN his team would attend the talks in Arusha, he still wants Nkurunziza to step down. "We shall negotiate with the enemy. But he [Nkurunziza] can't say, 'Give me five [more] years'... He must go," said Minani.
Will peacekeepers deploy?
Nkurunziza's opponents argue that his third-term bid was prohibited by the constitution and also violated the 2000 Arusha peace accord that ended Burundi's long civil war. Key to that agreement was the merging of the army with rebel forces - to which Nkurunziza once belonged.
"A political solution is not impossible, but looks very, very difficult given that the main opposition demand is for Nkurunziza to step down, something the government will never accede too," Alex Fielding, senior analyst at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm, told IRIN. "Nkurunziza still remains popular in rural areas and he has shown little willingness to compromise.
"Yes, of course, CNARED is the main opposition platform that needs to come on board for any lasting political solution. By rejecting them outright for being 'criminals' or 'terrorists', the Nkurunziza government is dooming the dialogue to failure," he said.
"One reason for this hardline stance is that [Nkurunziza's] power base is quite strong in the security forces and upper levels of the military after sidelining those perceived to be disloyal after the failed coup. He is also emboldened by the dwindling prospects of an AU peacekeeper deployment."
On 17 December, the AU invoked for the first time a clause allowing it to intervene in a member state without its permission. Nkurunziza quickly warned that such an "invasion force" would be resisted.
"I anticipate that the Burundi government will continue to attempt to delay and obfuscate the negotiations and the deployment of a peacekeeping force as strenuously as they can," Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University, Washington, told IRIN. "While they will justify this on the grounds of sovereignty, the real focus for them is control and to deflect attention from their lack of legitimacy.
"Throughout the crisis, the government has calculated that there would be insufficient political will on the part of regional and international authorities to intervene - providing the government greater leverage to push for a third term and employ their tactics of intimidation," said Siegle.
But the reality is that the East African Standby Force is nowhere near ready to intervene. Key players Rwanda and Tanzania have already said they will not contribute troops, and any deployment would require UN Security Council approval given Burundi's objections.
"I actually think that the AU peacekeeping force was more of a political move to pressure Nkurunziza into entering into dialogue rather than a genuine desire to send the East African Standby Force into such a volatile and complex mission," said Fielding.
"The EASF has no actual combat experience and most AU leaders remain very reluctant and skeptical of interfering in state sovereignty by way of military intervention," he added. "I can't see these obstacles being overcome unless there's a serious escalation in violence, which would delegitimise the Nkurunziza government as the protector of its own people and add a greater sense of urgency for intervention."
On the brink?
The biggest wildcard could be the emergence of dissident factions within Burundi's previously Tutsi-dominated military. On 23 December, a new rebel group, the Republican Forces of Burundi - known by the French acronym "FOREBU" - announced its arrival on the scene.
Led by Edward Nshimirimana, a former army colonel, the group claimed to include soldiers who had defected. The government has blamed it for raids on military bases on 11 December and other "abortive attacks".
"Should FOREBU attract a number of high-ranking Tutsi officers who are disgruntled after being sidelined by the faction of former Hutu armed groups who are close to Nkurunziza, the violence could scale up, take on a dangerous ethnic dimension and possibly trigger a civil war," said Fielding.
"Nkurunziza has an interest in avoiding this scenario, which would likely lead to international military intervention. But there are worrying signs of ethnic rhetoric being used to stir up support, including by Nshimirimana, who alleges that a genocide of the Tutsis is already under way."
What's the way forward?
"The solution must be political, rather than just military, and regional African leaders and others such as China - who retain some degree of influence over Nkurunziza - must pressure the government to engage in an inclusive dialogue which involves CNARED and civil society groups," said Fielding.
For Tertsakian: "If the AU is ready to offer assistance in preventing further killings, then the Burundian government should be willing to consider that, as well as other options which could help restore respect for the rule of law and fundamental human rights.
"Apart from the deployment of a military force, there are other measures which could help reduce the number of killings, for example the deployment of a regional police force in areas most affected by the violence."
"There is still a chance to pull Burundi back from the brink," the senior HRW researcher concluded.