UN ambassadors head to Burundi

2016-01-21 07:49
(File, AP)

(File, AP)

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New York - UN Security Council ambassadors headed to Burundi on Wednesday to push the government to open up serious talks with the opposition and agree to an African Union force that could prevent a slide to all-out war.

It is the second time in less than a year that the 15-member council travels to Burundi, where the United Nations has warned that months of violence could escalate into ethnic killings and mass atrocities.

"We should all be worried," US Ambassador Samantha Power told AFP on the eve of the trip.

"Every day, there are reports of grenade attacks or bodies found on the side of the street in the morning."

"There is a history here where a match can be lit and things can spiral very, very quickly."

Burundi descended into bloodshed in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a controversial third term, which he went on to win in July.

More than 400 people have died in the violence and at least 230 000 have fled to neighboring countries.

The visit organised by the United States, France and Angola has been in the works for weeks and the government has made clear it will not be rolling out the red carpet for the council envoys.

At a meeting planned for Friday, the council hopes to persuade Nkurunziza to agree to an AU proposal for a 5 000-strong peacekeeping force, which his government has branded an "invasion force."

"We have a chance as a council to throw our weight behind what the AU has already put forward," said Power.

The African Union proposal would provide for a phased deployment, with a first wave of military observers to be sent into Burundi, including possibly at the border with Rwanda, diplomats said.

The Burundian government has repeatedly accused Rwanda of supporting armed opposition groups.

"The specific contours of what that force can and should look like can be worked out," said Power.

Dialogue the only way

Council envoys will also meet opposition leaders and civil society representatives on Thursday, and speak with African Union leaders during a stopover in Addis Ababa on Saturday.

After months of failed mediation led by Uganda, the council will push for a new effort to start a dialogue that would salvage the Arusha accords that ended the 1993-2005 civil war.

Angolan Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins said talks between the government and the opposition were "the only way to come out" of crisis and stressed that rights violations "have to be put to stop."

"The AU observers should definitely be there," said Martins.

French Ambassador Francois Delattre, who led the council during the last Burundi visit in March, said urgent action was needed to avoid the "genie of inter-ethnic violence getting out of its bottle."

Burundi has a similar Hutu-Tutsi mix as Rwanda and UN diplomats have repeatedly warned that if the violence were to spiral out of control, Rwanda may be tempted to intervene, triggering a regional war.

While the council unanimously backed a UN resolution in November condemning the violence in Burundi, Angola, China, Egypt, Russia and Venezuela have been reluctant to take a strong stance.

Russian Deputy UN Ambassador Petr Iliichev stressed that it was "up to the Burundians" to set up a dialogue and that the council will not be talking about power-sharing with the government.

This week, the United Nations began beefing up its presence in Burundi, sending in a 20-member team to work on ways to end the violence.

Read more on:    un  |  au  |  burundi  |  east africa

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