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

The report is the strongest evidence yet of the long-suspected hand of Rwanda in its neighbor's crisis — a development which threatens to morph domestic strife into a regional war.
A file pictrure dated 16 November 2009 shows President of Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza. (Lukas Lehmann/EPA)

Rwandan military personnel have trained hundreds of Burundian rebels in clandestine camps, according to interviews compiled by a United Nations panel of experts.

The accounts were contained in a report written by a group monitoring sanctions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which was sent to the UN Security Council. The experts said that they had spoken with 18 Burundian "combatants" in the eastern DRC who all said they had been recruited in the Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda during May and June of last year. That camp is the largest of several that house some 75,000 Burundian refugees who have fled mounting violence.


The leaking of material gathered by the panel, first reported on Wednesday evening by Reuters, comes two months after researchers at NGO Refugees International released similar findings, also alleging that recruitment began in May of 2015. That month, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza was cleared by the country's highest courts to run for a contentious third term, a decision that sparked intense political unrest.

The UN says that at least 439 people have been killed in violence in Burundi since last spring. Both the UN and researchers at Amnesty International have reported the existence of mass graves in the capital Bujumbura, possible holding the bodies of some 100 people killed by government forces after rebels attacked military installations on December 11.

Related: The African Union Plans a Trip to Burundi After Its Peacekeeping Plan Fails

In a January briefing, the UN's human rights office cited witnesses and victims who said during the brutal response by Burundian forces, some of those killed or assaulted appeared to be targeted due to their Tutsi ethnicity. Both Rwanda and Burundi have similar ethnic-splits — roughly 85 percent Hutu and 15 percent Tutsi — and each experienced genocides in the 1990s. Rwandan President Paul Kagame led a largely Tutsi rebel force that ended the 1994 genocide there, while Nkurunziza was commander of Burundi's largest Hutu faction during Burundi's civil war. That conflict end in 2005, and Nkurunziza has led the country ever since.


In their report, the panel of experts said that the Burundian combatants told them they had been taken to a forest camp in Rwanda, where they were trained in "military tactics and the maintenance and use of assault rifles and machine guns, as well as ideological and morale-building sessions."

"Some told the group that they were also trained in the use of grenades, anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades," wrote the panel. "They were transported around Rwanda in the back of military trucks, often with Rwandan military escort. The Burundian combatants told the Group that there were at least four companies of 100 recruits being trained at the camp while they were there." Those interviewed, said the panel, "reported that their ultimate goal was to remove Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza from Power."

Related: Security Forces Allegedly Buried Bodies in Mass Graves in Burundi

In a separate section of the findings, the panel reported that "several" Rwandan and Congolese nationals had been "caught at the Congolese-Rwandan border post" last fall with weapons. "Some of the weapons were hidden in bags of green beans or manioc and others were hidden in the chassis of a car." The arrested individuals, wrote the panel, "confirmed that the weapons were to be used in support of an armed group in Burundi."

In late January, the UN Security Council travelled to Burundi, where diplomats met with national officials including Nkurunziza. Little resulted from the trip — sources close to the Council told VICE News that Nkurunziza made the ambassadors drive several hours to meet with him — and days later Burundi prevented a team of independent human rights experts mandated by the Human Rights Council from entering the country.


The direct involvement of Rwanda in arming and training Burundian rebels threatens to open a dangerous new dimension to what began as a largely domestic political dispute in Burundi. Many of Nkurunziza's most strident opponents are Hutu, and asserted that his third term was unconstitutional. The President claimed that since he was technically appointed in 2005, his first term should not count.

While Burundian authorities have for months blamed Rwanda for fomenting opposition inside its borders, the panel of experts report is one of the first accounts detailing such activity to emerge from a UN-appointed body. Diplomats and sources close to the UN have told VICE News in recent weeks that several UN agencies, including the UN's refugee agency, are aware of alleged Rwandan recruitment in camps, including Mahama, and subsequent transport of Burundians to the DRC. However, no official branch of the UN — including its human rights office or the office of peacekeeping, which maintains a large mission in the DRC — have publicly commented on those assertions.

Related: Burundian Security Forces Gang-Raped Women and Slaughtered Tutsis, Says the UN

Rwanda's hand in its neighbor's crisis — or even the perception of such entanglement — could also worsen the plight of those attempting to flee Burundi. A disproportionate number of those seeking shelter in Rwanda are from Burundi's Tutsi community, and UN officials have expressed concern privately that increasingly paranoid Burundian forces may step up violations against would-be refugees, by preventing them from leaving the country, or worse.


As Burundi's crisis threatens to grow even deadlier, the international community has remained largely immobilized. According to a confidential memo compiled by the UN's office of peacekeeping and first reported by VICE News, the UN estimates that it will be able to do little to protect civilians in the event of widespread fighting in the country. Any move to deploy peacekeepers, would require authorization from the Security Council and permission from Burundi. Meanwhile, the African Union last week shelved plans to deploy its own force of as many as 5,000 troops into Burundi.

On Thursday, Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told the BBC that the allegations contained in the panel's report were "unfounded," and came "from the fact that Rwanda has been hosting refugees considered hostile to Bujumbura."

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

In response to the report's leak, Burundi's ambassador to the UN Alberto Shingiro took to Twitter, where he engaged in a lengthy back and forth with Olivier Nduhungirehe, Rwanda's ambassador to Belgium and a former diplomat at the UN.

"It would be appropriate 4 u to talk about #Rwanda not #Burundi," Shingiro tweeted to Nduhungirehe. "Better to stop to enter in the internal kitchen of others."

"I care about humanity and I fight mass atrocities," Nduhungirehe wrote back, hinting at the possibility of such incidents in Burundi.

Follow Sam Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford