Burundi’s last active rebel leader, Agathon Rwasa, has declared the end of the armed struggle against the government at a ceremony to mark the formal start of the cantonment of his fighters in Rugazi Commune, Bubanza Province, western Burundi.
"Through this pre-cantonment process we want to show the Burundian and international community that we are committed to reaching a lasting peace," Rwasa said as 150 combatants from his Palipehutu-Forces nationales de libération (FNL) assembled at Rugazi. Others were to assemble at Rukoko in Gihanga Commune.
The launch of the cantonment process was a step that showed the FNL was "committed to moving forward in implementing the ceasefire accord", he said on 16 June. It was also "a gesture that will, among other things, allow an improvement of security, and people to [perform] their ordinary activities without problems".
The two locations have been designated by the government as cantonment sites for FNL combatants. However the FNL has said more sites are needed, commensurate with the number combatants, which they say is 15,000. Other sources say they number 3,000.
Without revealing the number of his combatants, Rwasa, who on 30 May returned home from years of exile in Tanzania, said: "What matters is that the war is over."
The number of his fighters that would be reintegrated into other forces, such as Burundi’s army and police, would be discussed with the government, he said.
The launch of the cantonment process was witnessed by members of the Joint Verification and Monitoring Mechanism (JVMM) and the Political Directorate, as well as the ambassadors of Tanzania, France, and the African Union, and representatives of the World Food Programme in Burundi, the European Union, and the Burundian government.
Rwasa, who was dressed in military uniform, was welcomed by cheering, dancing FNL combatants. Calling on the government to "withdraw its troops from villages" and confine them to barracks, Rwasa said a show of political will was necessary.
|What matters is that the war is over|
"The cease-fire agreement links both sides," he said, adding that the FNL had, by assembling its combatants signalled it wanted to join the government.
The leader of the government team in the JVMM, Maj Lazare Nduwayo, hailed the FNL for agreeing to prepare for cantonment. "Joining Assembly zones is very important to us," he said. "The government, too, wants peace."
The cantonment of FNL combatants is starting after weeks of talks at the JVMM over implementation of the September 2006 ceasefire accord signed with the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza. A former guerrilla leader, Nkurunziza was elected president in 2005 under an agreement brokered by the African Union and the UN.
The FNL refused to be part of that pact, but later signed a separate accord. That deal soon stalled, however, and clashes resumed.
In May, it again attacked the suburbs of Bujumbura, leaving 33 people dead and at least 20,000 displaced. Under intense international pressure, however, the group eventually signed a ceasefire agreement on 25 May with the government, paving the way for Rwasa’s return to Bujumbura.