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BURUNDI-RWANDA: Hundreds flee tension, food shortages

Kigali, 3 March 2005 (IRIN) - Hundreds of Burundians continue to flee into neighbouring Rwanda, citing increased tension in their nation despite overwhelming public approval of a new constitution put to a referendum, UN and local Rwandan officials said on Thursday.

A spokesman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Rwanda, Volker Schimmel, said 800 refugees had crossed into Rwanda over the last week, while local officials said small numbers still continued to trickle in.

"Even though things are going quite well and the referendum has been a success, there have been tensions and people are probably fleeing in anticipation of possible clashes or attacks of any kind," Schimmel told IRIN.

A final count on Wednesday of the referendum showed that 91.2 percent of Burundians said "yes" to the new constitution, which guarantees power-sharing in a country torn apart by more than a decade of ethnic war.

Under the new constitution, the Senate would be split 50-50 between Hutus and Tutsis and the national assembly would be 60 percent Hutu and 40 percent Tutsi, a measure aimed at addressing Hutu grievances that Tutsis, who make up 14 percent of the population, have held power for too long.

The new constitution also paves the way for local, parliamentary and presidential elections, set for April, necessary for sustainable peace in the coffee-producing country of eight million people.

Burundi's civil war pitted rebels from the Hutu majority and Tutsis who have dominated politics and the military since independence from Belgium in 1962.

The conflict has resulted in the deaths some 300,000 people, mostly civilians, since 1993.

The continuing exodus of Burundians reflects the lingering insecurity that prevails in the country. The latest group of refugees includes some 190 Batwa from a northern province in Burundi who, the Burundi News Agency reported, fled after their Hutu neighbours threatened them in anticipation that the Batwa would vote "no" during the referendum.

A local official in Rwanda's southwestern province of Butare, hosting the refugees, said the government had established a temporary transit centre to accommodate them, comprised mainly of children, women and the elderly.

"We now await humanitarian agencies to come in and assist," the official, who requested anonymity, said.

Rwanda is home to at least 50,000 refugees, comprised of mainly Congolese and Burundians.

An estimated 4,000 Burundian refugees fled into Rwanda in 2004. Schimmel told IRIN that up to 1,000 of these refugees had returned to Burundi.

He attributed the continuing flight of refugees in part to imminent food insecurity in Burundi's northern provinces.

Theme (s): Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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