Burundi's military claims it killed 95 Congolese rebels in the country's northwest after the armed attackers infiltrated the African nation to disrupt it ahead of two sets of upcoming elections. The identity and motives of the rebels remain unclear.
Fighting broke out last week in the region of Citiboke, just 40 miles north of the country's capital, Bujumbura, when nearly 200 rebels armed with assault rifles, five rocket launchers, machine guns and a mortar crossed over into Burundi from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the military said.
Army spokesman Gaspard Baratuza described the fighters as "a terrorist group " at a press conference Monday, and claimed the rebels had entered the country in order to destabilize Burundi's parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for May 2015 and June 2015, respectively.
Baratuza said the clashes between the army and rebels lasted five days, during which 97 people died, including two Burundian soldiers. The army also said it had captured nine rebels from the group — claims that have yet to be independently verified.
Burundi is still recovering from a 12-year bloody civil war that pitted the country's ethnic Hutu and Tutsi groups against each other. The conflict ended in 2005, with the election of President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has ruled since that time. It is widely believed that the leader will stand for a third term in the June presidential election.
Several sources, including a journalist with AFP, claimed this week that the rebel group was made up of both Hutus and Tutsis — a theory that only deepens the mystery surrounding the militants' identity and motives.
Violence has escalated in Burundi as political tensions run high ahead of next year's elections. On Sunday night, three ruling party activists were shot dead by men wearing army fatigues in a bar in eastern Burundi.
Burundi's presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe told VICE News Tuesday that the rebels' aim was to establish a base "in the forest and disrupt the electoral campaigns."
"It's not unusual for Burundi to be gripped by election fever. In the lead-up to elections, people get a little carried away," Nyamitwe said, but added that he found the scale of last week's attack surprising.
The government's main opposition coalition, the Democratic Alliance for Change (ADC-Ikibiri) has denounced the killings of the rebels and accused the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), of exploiting the incident for political gain in an attempt to muzzle opposition supporters ahead of the spring elections.
Vital Nshimirimana, the head of local civil society organization Forum for the Reinforcement of Civil Society (FORSC) also condemned the killings, saying the army had violated the rebels' rights.
Government opponents further accused officials of rushing the burial of the rebels' bodies in order to hide their identity. The army has defended its actions, saying that no one has been executed while in army detention, and that the bodies had been buried quickly in order to avoid the spreading of disease.
Nyamitwe maintained that the "army acts professionally" and that it was "able to limit civilian casualties, since there were only two [civilian] deaths."
The spokesman added that he is confident in the country's security, and said the Burundian army would be working closely with the armed forces of the DRC to secure the forest of Kibira, which was a rebel stronghold during the Burundian civil war.
On Monday, the UN announced the launch of a joint operation with the Congolese army against the National Liberation Forces of Burundi, a Hutu rebel group. As part of the mission, UN peacekeepers and Congolese troops seized several rebel outposts along the border with Burundi.
In July 2014, Amnesty International released a report on the "escalating political violence" in Burundi. In it, the right group accused members of the Imbonerakure, the ruling party's youth wing, of leading a campaign of intimidation against opposition supporters.
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