15 January 2016

Burundi: UN Says Violence Takes On Dangerous Ethnic Tone

The UN has voiced concern over alleged mass graves as political violence appears to be taking on an ethnic tone in Burundi. The current trajectory of the country will lead to disaster, the UN said.

Burundi faces the prospect of sliding down a perilous path of ethnic violence and breakdown in the rule of law, the UN rights chief warned on Friday.

"All the alarm signals, including the increasing ethnic dimension of the crisis, are flashing red," UN Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein warned in a statement.

Burundi has been wracked by violence and political crisis since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a legally questionable third term and won an election in July.

A failed coup attempt in May against Nkurunziza and opposition protests challenging a third run led to a crackdown on dissent, leaving at least 439 people dead since April and some 250,000 fleeing to neighboring countries.

The level of violence, including what the UN said were allegations of at least nine mass graves, torture, forced disappearances and sexual crimes , has raised concerns of a repeat of the 1993-2006 civil war between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis. At least 300,000 people were killed in that conflict.

Dangerous ethnic dimension

The UN said witnesses had reported the political violence has increasingly taken on an ethnic tinge, with security forces and the Imbonerakure militia targeting minority Tutsis and armed opposition groups becoming more active.

"A complete breakdown in law and order is just around the corner," Zeid warned, stressing that with "the potentially lethal ethnic dimension starting to rear its head, this will inevitably end in disaster if the current rapidly deteriorating trajectory continues."

Following a mid-December attack against three military camps security forces and the Imbonerakure have unleashed "extremely disturbing patterns" of rights violations and violence, the High Commissioner said.

One of nine alleged mass graves holding more than 100 bodies is believed to be at a military camp. The UN rights chief said his office was analyzing satellite images of mass graves.

"The increasing number of enforced disappearances, coupled with allegations of secret detention facilities and mass graves is extremely alarming," Zeid said.

As the UN rings alarm bells the violence shows no signs of abating. Uganda mediated negotiations between the government and opposition collapsed this month and were postponed indefinitely. The UN would like to send an investigation team to examine abuses but the government has so far denied authorization.

Burundi has also refused to allow an African Union force to halt the violence and a recent UN memo voiced concern that it would be powerless to stop a repeat of genocide in a region with a troubled recent history of ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsi.

While the civil war in Burundi lasted over a decade, a similar one in Rwanda in 1994 rapidly spiralled out of control, leaving nearly 800,000 Tutsis massacred by Hutus in a short period of time.

Burundi and Rwanda have a similar ethnic makeup of roughly 85 percent Hutu and 15 percent Tutsi.

In Rwanda, the Tutsi rebel leader Paul Kagame who ended the genocide still remains in power nearly two decades later. On the other hand, Nkurunziza was a Hutu rebel leader that came to power at the end of the civil war in 2006.

Nkurunziza and his government have accused Rwanda of backing the opposition and providing them a safe-haven, casting a wider shadow of the domestic conflict in Burundi across the turbulent Great Lakes Region.

cw/jil (dpa, Reuters)

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