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There's a New Fighting Force in Increasingly Violent Burundi

The announcement by a former army commander pushes the country closer to open war.
December 23, 2015, 9:10pm
Clashes in Bujumbura on May 26, 2015. Photo by Dai Kurokawa / EPA

A former Burundian army official has declared the formation of a rebel force in the country, a development that threatens to widen violence and wreak havoc with attempts to resolve Burundi's political crisis peacefully.

Edward Nshirimirana, identified by AFP as a former army colonel, told the French wire service that a new group, the Republican Forces of Burundi (Forebu by its French acronym) had been established in order to depose the government of Pierre Nkurunziza. President Nkurunziza is himself a former rebel who commanded the largest ethnic Hutu force in Burundi's civil war, which ended in 2005.

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Nkurunziza has led the country since the end of that war, and was elected to a controversial third term in July amid renewed protest. Critics say a third term is clearly prohibited under Burundi's constitution; Nkurunziza'a supporters, and the country's top court, say his first term shouldn't count, because he was initially appointed to the position. The resulting discord, ranging from government crackdowns on political activists and protestors to open gun battles between opposition and state security forces, has wracked the country and threatened a return to war.

"Our goal is to drive out Nkurunziza by force to restore the Arusha accord and democracy," Nshimirimana told the AFP, referring to the 2000 agreement that set a framework to end Burundi's civil war.

It wasn't immediately clear how many forces were part of the Forebu, or whether they represented a wide cross section of armed opposition fighters. A spokesperson for Nkurunziza did not immediately respond to request from VICE News for comment on the announcement, though the president's camp has in the past downplayed the threat of armed insurrection.

Forebu's reported formation comes less than two weeks after the worst spasm of violence to strike Burundi this year. On December 11, following a series of attacks on military sites in and around the capital Bujumbura, police carried out brutal security operations in neighborhoods identified as opposition strongholds. According to researchers at Amnesty International, "dozens" were killed and at least 21 men were found dead in the neighborhood of Nyakabiga, lying "in streets, homes and drainage ditches."

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"The dead included a disabled man, a teenage egg seller, a domestic worker, a teacher and a man who sold mobile phones," wrote Amnesty in a brief. "A number of victims were children, including a 15-year-old boy who was shot in the head as he ran to take refuge in an outhouse."

On December 12, the Burundian army said that 79 "enemies" had been killed in fighting, along with four soldiers and four police. While Amnesty said that some of the dead may have participated in the initial armed attacks, or fired upon security forces when they were going house-to-house, the group cautioned that the claim that all the dead were opposition fighters "is clearly untrue."

Other groups put the death toll in the aftermath of fighting on December 11 even higher. Last week, the International Federation for Human Rights estimated that 154 civilians were killed, and nearly 150 disappeared during security operations that followed the military installation attacks. "The mass arrests of civilians and their extrajudicial executions which have been committed and apparently are still being committed mainly in Bujumbura are crimes of extreme gravity, possibly constituting international crimes," said the group.

By all appearances, the stunning violence augured a darker and more violent situation in Burundi. On December 12, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power wrote in a note to French and British diplomats that the country "is going to hell." In the email, obtained by VICE News, Power lamented the lack of "contingency planning," by both the UN and African Union, planned for what now seemed like an inevitable worsening of clashes.

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However, last Thursday, the AU's Peace and Security Council (the organization's equivalent to the UN Security Council) issued a communique that proposed sending a force of up to 5,000 African peacekeepers to Burundi, and gave the government 96 hours to accept the move. That deadline came and went, and the government in Bujumbura flatly opposed to the presence of foreign peacekeepers. The Security Council, which, as Power noted in her email, struggled to come up with its own plan, cautiously welcomed the AU's decision, but hasn't moved to authorize it under a Chapter VII use of force resolution. Several diplomats at the Council, speaking to VICE News, said the prospective of what could now amount to an AU invasion of Burundi was being viewed with skepticism.

The recent violence comes amid lingering accusations from the Nkurunziza government that Rwanda, Burundi's neighbor to the north, may be involved in recruiting armed opposition fighters from among the 75,000 Burundian refugees who have fled to the country. Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, has in the past supported predominantly ethnic Tutsi proxy forces in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, which abuts both Burundi and Rwanda. This month, the non-profit Refugees International published a reports that indicated Rwandan officials may have played a role in training Burundians, both in Rwanda and the eastern DRC. The UN's refugee agency has shared similar reports with American officials, but they have not yet gone public with the information.

Both Rwanda and Burundi lived through genocides in the 1990s and memories of large-scale ethnic-based killings cast a shadow in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Though the recent divisions in Burundi are still considered largely political, fears of a return to a war split along Hutu-Tutsi lines have not abated. Some anecdotal signs — for instance, a disproportionate number of the Burundian refugees in Rwanda are Tutsis — indicate such concerns are not wholly unfounded.

At the UN, dialogue with each country is a delicate matter due to their outsized presence in the organization's peacekeeping operations. As of November, Rwanda deployed 6,075 personnel, and Burundi 1,253, at several UN missions.

For the time being, the international community has thrown its weight behind a largely fruitless regional mediation effort overseen by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. This Sunday, the Ugandan government announced talks would resume once more in Kampala on December 28.