Burundi protests enter 9th day; why Rwanda is losing sleep and fears of a Great Lakes eruption are growing

At least 9 people have been killed and 177 wounded since unrest began.

A UNITED Nations special envoy is meeting with the Burundian government to try to defuse tensions after more than week of protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid to run for a third term.

Demonstrators took to the streets of the capital, Bujumbura, again on Wednesday, setting up roadblocks and burning tires, Leonidas Hatungimana, a former presidential spokesman who backs the protests, said by phone.

The UN secretary-general’s special envoy for the Great Lakes region, Said Djinnit, began two days of talks with Burundi’s Interior Ministry over the situation, secretary-general spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York on Tuesday, according to a transcript of a press briefing.

Protests, which have so far left at least nine people dead, erupted on April 26 after Burundi’s ruling party CNDD-FDD nominated Nkurunziza to run for president in elections scheduled for June.

Opponents say his candidacy violates a peace accord signed 15 years ago in Arusha, Tanzania, that stipulates a two- term presidential limit. They suspended protests on May 2 for two days to allow Nkurunziza the opportunity to reconsider.

Grenades, clubs

Burundi’s Red Cross said in a statement that at least 16 people were injured during Wednesday’s protests, bringing to 177 the number wounded since unrest began. Bujumbura-based Radio Isanganiro cited the UN Refugee Agency as saying that almost 40,000 Burundians have fled to neighbouring Rwanda, Tanzania and Congo in the past month.

Shovinau Mugwengezo, spokesman for the Movement to Protect the Arusha Accords and Burundi Constitution opposition group, accused Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth wing, of attacking demonstrators in the capital with hand grenades and clubs, injuring three people. A July report by London-based Amnesty International said that members of Imbonerakure intimidated and attacked political opponents with impunity.

Government and opposition rivals in Burundi also held talks on ending deadly demonstrations against a third term bid by the president, officials said Wednesday, as international concern mounted over the crisis.

UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres said he was “extremely worried” as tens of thousands fled the small central African nation.

Speaking in Nairobi, he said, was “We thought Burundian refugees were something we would never have to discuss again, unfortunately we are back to having a significant outflow of Burundians,” Guterres told reporters. “It must stop. We have enough crises in the world.”

“This is a last chance meeting, they have to come up with concrete solutions so that elections can be held in acceptable conditions,” a diplomat said of the talks, warning international funding for polls could be cut if a deal was not struck.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday he was “deeply concerned” about Nkurunziza’s decision to stand again, which he said “flies directly in the face of the constitution”.

East African foreign ministers, from neighbouring Rwanda and Tanzania, as well as Kenya and Uganda, have also arrived “to propose ways out of crisis,” foreign ministry spokesman Daniel Kabuto said.

Vice President Prosper Bazombanza has pleaded for protests to end, offering to release demonstrators who have been arrested, lift arrest warrants issued for key civil society leaders and reopen independent radio stations - provided “protests and the insurrection stop”.

‘Enough crises’

A government source, speaking on condition he not be named, had earlier confirmed the government had “agreed to talk with some [Burundian] partners in civil society and the opposition to find a solution.”

But one of leaders of the campaign against Nkurunziza’s third term said they were doubtful the talks would result in a deal.

“I’m afraid we won’t succeed—because the government does not want to discuss the third mandate of Nkurunziza, and this issue is non-negotiable for us,” he said, asking not be named.

Rwanda warning

Rwanda has warned Burundi it must protect civilians saying it was concerned at “reports” violence was linked to ethnic Hutu rebels of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who fled Rwanda into Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after the 1994 genocide of mainly Tutsi people there.

 A UN truck is seen at the MONUSCO base near Kibumba village, North Kivu, on April 23, 2015. (Photo/AFP).

That is one of the factors making the current upheaval in Burundi dangerous. In the past, Rwanda did not feel so threatened with developments inside Burundi.

With a policy of pre-emptive strikes against what it calls “genocidal” forces, Rwanda has previously sent troops into DR Congo to target the rebels.

Burundi’s foreign ministry dismissed the reports, saying such forces would not be “tolerated on Burundian territory.”

It waits to be seen if his assurance will calm Kigali regional nerves, but the Hutu youth militia Imbonerakure have been accused of distributing leaflets in the north of Burundi threatening Tutsi villagers.

That would have disconcerted the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) government in Kigali further, as it would resurrect the ghosts the 1994 genocide in which one million Rwandese, mostly Tutsi, were butchered by Hutu extremist militia Interahamwe.

An FDLR foothold in Burundi would not only signal the rise of the extreme elements in so-called “Hutu power” politics, but would mean Rwanda would be sandwiched between the rebels to the north and south.

Great Lakes destabilisation

Beyond stoking fears of a return to conflict if rebel groups abandon the agreements that ended a 12-year civil war in which 300,000 were killed, all these factors have combined to raise fears of the potential of the Burundi crisis to destabilise the Great Lakes region that includes the DRC, the world’s biggest source of cobalt and Africa’s top copper producer, and the Central African Republic (CAR) which is still in the throes of a sectarian conflict.

 DR Congo troops battle rebels of ADF, a Ugandan Islamist group based on the Congolese side of the border, near Kokola in 2014. (Photo/AFP).

An escalation inside Burundi would be a costly distraction. Already, an ambush in eastern DRC, a region wracked by fighting between the army and Ugandan rebels, killed two United Nations peacekeepers on Tuesday.

The incident was the latest in a spate of unrest that has included a UN helicopter coming under fire, and at least 20 soldiers and rebels dying in clashes.

Local administrator Amisi Kalonda, said Ugandan rebels of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) staged the ambush in an area around Oicha, some 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Beni.

Earlier Tuesday, meanwhile, a DR Congo military spokesman said army troops killed 16 ADF rebels in two days of clashes in the region.

The Muslim rebels of the ADF, who launched an insurgency in neighbouring Uganda against President Yoweri Museveni in the mid-1990s, are accused of killing more than 260 civilians in and around Beni town between October and December last year.

Most of the victims were hacked to death, in atrocities that prompted a joint operation by the Congolese army and UN troops to put down the jihadist fighters in December.

A degree of calm was restored, but the combined intervention failed to bring a halt to the killings of civilians, which spread northwards to Orientale province.

Since January 1, at least 60 people have lost their lives across the region.

The rebels first established rear bases in the mountains near the Ugandan border in 1995.

Meanwhile Uganda has requested the extradition of ADF leader Jamil Mukulu, who arrested in Tanzania recently, police said Wednesday, after saying they had confirmed his identity.

Officials said last month that Mukulu was being held in Tanzania but that they were awaiting formal confirmation of his identity from Interpol.

Ugandan police spokesman, Fred Enanga, told AFP that Interpol had said there was “no doubt” the prisoner was Mukulu.

“After receiving the confirmation, we have sent officers to Tanzania who are working with their counterparts to have him extradited,” he said, adding they hoped to receive him by next week.

-Additional reporting by Bloomberg and AFP.

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