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Cautious Optimism Follows Meeting Between Burundi’s President and UN Secretary-General

Burundi’s embattled president announced that the government is open to talks with the opposition and willing to release hundreds of prisoners.
February 23, 2016, 5:15pm
Photo by Evrard Ngendakumana/Reuters

After a meeting in Burundi's capital Bujumbura on Tuesday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and embattled President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that the government is open to talks with the opposition and willing to release hundreds of prisoners detained amid violent political upheaval in the country.

Ban's high-stakes visit to the landlocked African country began hours after several grenade attacks overnight in the capital that injured a dozen people. Burundi has been engulfed in violence since April, when Nkurunziza, a 52-year-old former rebel leader, decided to seek a constitutionally tenuous third term in office. The move sparked protests that quickly devolved into clashes with police and the president's supporters.

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The crisis has escalated in the months since, and around 400 people have been killed, raising concerns in the international community about the risk of civil war breaking out again. The situation has destabilized Burundi after years of progress that followed a 2005 peace accord that installed Nkurunziza as president and ended nearly a decade of conflict.

Related: UN Panel Says Rwanda Is Training Rebels to Depose Burundi's President

"Burundians and UN agree that inter-Burundian dialogue shall bring together Burundians but the perpetrators of insecurity … will not be involved," Nkurunziza said during a press conference where he stood side by side with Ban, according to Reuters. The government had previously refused to engage in dialogue with the opposition. Ban said that Nkurunziza committed to releasing 1,200 prisoners, though a statement from the president's office released after the speech said 2,000 people would be freed.

The secretary-general also said that Nkurunziza agreed to scale back restrictions that have been placed on the press in Burundi over the last year. Several media outlets have been forced to close since the unrest broke out in the form of popular protests in April, and journalists have been repeatedly targeted since violence escalated last August.

Watch the VICE News dispatch, Fleeing to Rwanda: Burundi on the Brink:

"I was very encouraged that the political leaders, whether they are sitting in government or the ruling party or opposition, they promised that they will engage in inclusive dialogue," Ban said of his meeting, which also included a conversation with party officials. "This is what President Nkurunziza also confirmed."

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Ban's visit is a signal that the UN is serious about the crisis in Burundi, according to Evan Cinq-Mars, an advocacy officer at the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect. As he explained, the high-profile visit from the secretary-general, and upcoming visits by several African heads of state will pressure Nkurunziza to address the international community's concerns.

While expressing cautious optimism about the latest developments, Cinq-Mars said it's important to keep in mind that the government has previously failed to follow through on promises similar to the ones Nkurunziza discussed with Ban.

Related: Exclusive: Leaked UN Memo Shows There's No Plan to Prevent Genocide in Burundi

"I don't want to write off the decisions taken while Ban was in Burundi because i think there could be some traction… given how high level it was," he said. "But at the same time, the government of Burundi has taken a sort of duplicitous stance on this before."

The talks could potentially signal a step in the right direction, but violence has persisted in the country. In the last two weeks alone, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it has treated more than 100 people with injuries sustained in separate grenade attacks.

On the eve of Ban and Nkurunziza's meeting, around 10 grenade blasts occurred in the capital, which Cinq-Mars classified as opportunistic attacks that point to the fragile situation on the ground. While the violence has slowed since December, when armed rebel groups waged an overnight attack on Burundian military bases, the opposition has grown stronger and the possibility of a more entrenched armed conflict remains.

"We're moving towards a situation that many have feared and that's a slide towards civil war," Cinq-Mars said. "What matters is for the world to see the UN take preventive action in a situation where the risks are all too clear if that action isn't taken."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB