African Leaders in Burundi to Push for Talks


A delegation of five African heads of state arrived in Bujumbura on Thursday at the start of a two-day visit to push for talks to end Burundi's deep political crisis.

The visit comes just days after a trip by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to Burundi as part of growing international efforts to bring an end to 10 months of deadly turmoil in the central African country.

The African Union agreed to send the delegation -- which is headed by South African President Jacob Zuma and includes the leaders of Ethiopia, Gabon, Mauritania and Senegal -- during its January summit when Burundi successfully faced down a plan to deploy 5,000 peacekeepers to the country.

Ban, on his first visit since the crisis erupted, met President Pierre Nkurunziza on Tuesday and said he had won a guarantee that "inclusive dialogue" would begin between the government and its opponents.

But the main umbrella opposition group CNARED, whose leaders are in exile, dismissed it as a "false opening", saying Nkurunziza did not want real negotiations to bring peace.

The opposition was angered by the president's apparent attempt to choose who should participate when he said the dialogue would include all Burundians "except those engaged in acts of destabilization".

Previous talks have failed, with the Burundian government refusing to sit down with some of its opponents who it accuses of involvement in a failed coup last May and months of violence including grenade and rocket attacks.

"The heads of state are coming to consult with the government and other stakeholders on the revival of an inclusive dialogue," said an African diplomat in Bujumbura who did not want to be named.

"The issue of deploying a peacekeeping force in Burundi is not on the agenda," the diplomat added.

- Need for 'strong pressure' -

CNARED chairman Leonard Nyangoma welcomed the delegation's visit but held out little hope of a breakthrough.

"Nkurunziza is a diehard and without strong pressure and real sanctions he will never agree to the meaningful negotiations that are the only way out of this crisis," he told AFP by telephone.

Burundi's upheaval was triggered by Nkurunziza's controversial decision last April to run for a third term which he won in an election in July.

Over 400 people have been killed since April while more than 240,000 have left the country.

Violent attacks have become routine, raising fears of a return to the civil war fought between 1993-2006 in which around 300,000 people died.

On Thursday advocacy group Human Rights Watch warned that "government forces are killing, abducting, torturing and arbitrarily arresting scores of people at an alarming rate."

It called for the deployment of "a strong U.N. political mission with a substantial international police component".

Even Ban's visit was greeted by an uptick in grenade attacks with at least four people killed just ahead of his arrival on Tuesday and at least a dozen injured.

A Burundi government spokesman said the AU delegation's visit would "confirm that there is peace and security in Burundi" and that peacekeepers were not necessary.

However, Zuma arrived Thursday with a personal guard of more than 50 soldiers and at least six machine gun-mounted army trucks for his 10-minute drive to the city center.

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