WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS EXTREMELY GRAPHIC IMAGES
"The rebels came out, some in small groups, others one by one, with their guns above their heads… They took the rebels to a cliff. The men were tied up. They shot them, all at the same time. Then they fell down…"
This is an eyewitness account of the last moments of 17 surrendered rebels allegedly executed by the Burundian police and National Defense Force. They were among at least 47 rebel soldiers executed in the first month of the year, according to a Human Rights Watch report released on Thursday.
VICE News has obtained images taken by local witnesses which show the dead bodies of young men, said to be rebels, some of them with their hands apparently tied behind their backs. In one of the images, a youth sits on the ground with his hands bound, with two dead bodies beside him. In a second photo, apparently taken moments later, he is dead.
The extrajudicial killings reportedly occurred between December 30, 2014 and January 3, after clashes with rebel forces in Cibitoke province, near the country's border with the turbulent eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The figure of 47 executions is far higher than the 17 reported by the BBC in January.
Surrendered rebels were beaten to death, shot at point blank range or thrown off cliffs, according to 32 eyewitnesses interviewed by HRW officials. It has been widely reported that the government officials and the Imbonerakure, the ruling party's sinister youth wing, were involved in the killings. One of the images given to VICE News shows a man identified by local witnesses as an Imbonerakure member.
Burundi is a nation still reforging its national identity in the wake of a bloody 12-year ethnic-based civil war between the Tutsi minority and Hutu majority.
Since the end of the conflict in 2005, the tiny East African country has suffered from what the US State Department describes as "Low-level political violence…a carryover of the Burundian civil war."
Although the identity of the rebel group involved in January's clashes is still unknown, they are said to have intended to create a base in the Kibira Forest just across the border from the DRC, and eventually launch an attack on the government in the capital, Bujumbura.
The South Kivu region of the DRC bordering Burundi is a hotbed of militia activity, and many of the groups are made up of Burundians forced into exile after defeat in the civil war. The lawlessness of the region provides an ideal environment for rebel groups.
The Burundian National Defense Force spokesperson told the press that five days of fighting left 95 members of the rebel group dead, as well as two soldiers and two residents, while nine rebel fighters had been arrested. However he denied that any executions occurred.
Burundian Col. Gaspard Baratuza told a press conference on January 5: "To say that (some people) were executed after putting down their weapons with their hands in the air, I say and I repeat: the military are professional and know what they are doing. They cannot do that. I am absolutely certain."
Many of the rebels killed were young men — some as young as 14. One witness recalled: "One (rebel) was very young and he said 'I am still at school. Call the director, I just did my exam.' … The police tied the rebels' hands behind their backs. They made them lie on the ground and they shot them in the head one by one… There were many local people who saw this. We are afraid of what we saw."
What the Burundian forces lacked in arrested prisoners to present, they made up for in their weapons haul. On January 4, a Burundian general confirmed to journalists that they had "seized a 60mm mortar, five rocket launchers, machine guns and more than 100 assault rifles."
One eyewitness told HRW they overheard a Burundian commander saying: "I want the guns, but I do not want the men," moments before the group of 17 rebels were executed.
The reports of executions will particularly worry the US and Dutch governments as both provide financial assistance in the form of training to the army and police respectively.
American funding and training of Burundian forces has come as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which involves over 5,000 Burundian troops.
A local source with knowledge of the case, who asked to be kept anonymous, told VICE NEWS that they where "confident that at least one battalion involved in events in Cibitoke had recently returned from Mogadishu."
This could have severe implications on future US funding to Burundian forces. The US Foreign Assistance Act states: "No assistance shall be furnished … to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights."
These extrajudicial killings come at a crucial moment in Burundi as it approaches parliamentary elections in May, followed by presidential elections in June.
Concern has been raised abroad about the security situation in the landlocked nation and the feared clampdown on opponents in light of the election. The UN under secretary-general for political affairs, Jeffery Feltman, warned in January that "organizing peaceful and credible elections is one of the most pressing challenges facing Burundi this year."
Observers say there is strong evidence that the alleged extrajudicial killings had a strong political element, noting the reported involvement of the Imburakoure.
The Imburakoure, officially the youth wing of the ruling party, The National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy's (CNDD-FDD), is a notorious force known for intimidation and murder. The militia is thought to number as many as 100,00 men and boys.
Burundi's incumbent leader Pierre Nkurunziza is reported by the Guardian to have supplied the milita with machetes, arms and uniforms, adding further weight to allegations of politically motivated killings.
"The Imbonerakure have strong links to the security services," stated Tom Gibson of Amnesty International, going on to affirm they "are responsible for perpetrating human rights abuses with impunity."
Wittnesses who spoke to HRW said they saw the military police arm the Imburakoure and transport them to the Murwi commune, the scene of executions.
The election was already shrouded in controversy with Nkurunziza, president since the end of the civil war in 2005, set to run for third term in defiance of a two-term limit.
Nkurunziza, an ethnic Hutu, has argued that the constitution is open to interpretation, a move widely expected by opposition groups, many of whom boycotted the last elections amid claims of vote fraud and intimidation in 2010. Nkurunziza, the only candidate, comfortably won.
Many fear that the nation's brutal and bloody start to 2015 is an indication of things to come. In a country familiar with civil war, years of peace is by no means a guarantee of continuity.
Follow Frederick Tiffin on Twitter: @FrederickTiffin