War crimes "may go unpunished", says Human Rights Watch

The Burundian military and armed opposition forces have committed "serious war crimes, including civilian killings and rapes", the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW), alleged in a report released on Monday. It said a political agreement of 16 November between major parties to end the 10-year civil war should not have granted immunity from prosecution for such "blatant and widespread crimes".

The 63-page report, "Everyday Victims: Civilians in the Burundian War", documents cases of massacres and rapes of civilians and attacks on civilian property between April and November, when the transitional government and the main former rebel group, Conseil national pour la defense de la democratie/Front de defense de la democratie (CNDD/FDD) led by Pierre Nkurunziza, signed a peace accord in Tanzania guaranteeing all sides provisional immunity from prosecution for war crimes.

"Agreements based on immunity from prosecution rarely work," Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to HRW's Africa Division, said. "The kinds of abuses described in this report should not go unpunished."

One example given in the report described how the Tutsi-dominated military allegedly "deliberately killed scores of civilians" at Kabezi, during fighting with Hutu rebel forces close to the Burundian capital Bujumbura, in April. From April to September it said combatants of the armed opposition groups FDD and the Forces nationales de liberation (FNL) killed scores of civilians and pillaged their property.

Both government soldiers and rebel combatants had raped women and girls, a crime committed with increasing frequency in the capital and surrounding areas, HRW reported. In addition, rebel groups had abducted children for use as combatants, it said.

HRW alleged government soldiers had deliberately killed local civilians in reprisal for FNL killings of soldiers separated from their units. A faction of FNL, a smaller rebel group, has refused to negotiate with the transitional government, and fighting between the army and that FNL faction has continued in and around Bujumbura.

HRW said that while UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had acclaimed the peace agreement, together with international leaders such as South Africa's deputy president, Jacob Zuma, who helped to broker it, the international community had failed to condemn the guarantee of provisional immunity to combatants who had committed war crimes.

It said supporters of the peace deal had argued the immunity clauses were necessary to bring as many parties as possible to the negotiating table, but peace agreements based on ignoring atrocities in the past, such as the 1999 Lome agreement to end the civil war in Sierra Leone, "very rarely succeeded".

"With the recent agreements, government soldiers and FDD combatants have no need to fear being held accountable for their conduct," Des Forges said. "Civilians pay and will continue to pay the price."

[For full report go to www.hrw.org]