Rebel group slowing peace process, says government

Burundi’s government has accused the rebel Palipehutu-Forces for National Liberation (FNL) of recruiting new combatants and delaying the peace process by insisting on political recognition before cantonment.

"The Palipehutu-FNL is not respecting the ceasefire accord by demanding legalisation [as a] political party before combatants assemble," government spokeswoman Hafsa Mossi told a news conference in the capital, Bujumbura on 9 July.

"Article 2 of the 18 June 2006 accord says the Palipehutu shall not demand to be legalised in compliance with the law before separating [its] political branch from the military one," the spokesperson said.

The group, she added, was recruiting new combatants. "The accord stipulates that after implementation of the ceasefire, parties should not enroll supplementary forces," Mossi said. "This constitutes preparation for resumption of hostilities."

However, FNL leader Agaton Rwasa denied recruiting new combatants. "We are not recruiting more combatants; it is even difficult to feed those we already have," he said.

On 6 July, Rwasa called for a referendum on Burundi's constitution, saying it had shortcomings and needed to be changed.

"The constitution, like, some other laws in Burundi, contains serious shortcomings," he told a news conference in Bujumbura. "Many legal texts are exclusive."

Constitutional amendments would allow the group to gain political status and circumvent the government position that it cannot be recognised because its name contains the word “hutu”.

The government, however, said the FNL had not yet requested recognition. "The interior minister has not yet received any request for legalisation from the Palipehutu FNL," Evariste Ndayishimiye, government representative in the mediation process, said.

"If he [Rwasa] looks for the legalisation of his movement before separating military and political elements, it means he wants to resume war and Burundians will react," Ndayishimiye added.


Photo: Judith Basutama/IRIN
At least 20,000 peiople were displaced when the FNL attacked Bujumbura's suburbs in May

Separate programmes

Rwasa returned to Burun di on 30 May after years of exile in Tanzania and has since denounced rebellion. Before his return, he signed an agreement with the government, committing his group to end rebellion.

That pact, Ndayishimiye said, specified that the FNL would separate its political programmes from military activities. "The Dar es Salaam ceasefire accord recommends the separation of forces," he told IRIN.

At the news conference, Rwasa called for food donations for combatants who had refused to be cantoned. These combatants, he added, had declined to be cantoned because they wanted to know what positions their leaders would receive from the government.

"Failure to share will prompt Burundi back to war," he said.

At least 150 FNL fighters assembled at Rugazi at the start of cantonment on 16 June. Others were to assemble at Rukoko in Gihanga Commune. The FNL has, however, said more sites are needed to accommodate its 15,000 combatants. Other sources say they number 3,000.

Continuing talks

Meanwhile, talks between the FNL and the government have continued through the Joint Verification and Monitoring Mechanism (JVMM), aimed at ending years of political crisis.

Among other requests, the government has urged the FNL to forward the list of its combatants to the JVMM and proposed 12 July as the day for cantonment. The FNL, however, has yet to agree to this date.

This position is supported by advocacy groups. "The issue of political legalisation is not one that should be given priority, but moves to canton, integrate and demobilise FNL combatants," spokesperson for the Coalition of Human Rights Organisations, Diomède Ninteretse, said.

The FNL last attacked Bujumbura's suburbs in May, leaving 33 people dead and at least 20,000 displaced. But observers have hailed the fact that the guns have remained silent since Rwasa's return, saying it could signal the end of Burundi's conflict.

"If ever the odds were in favour of the completion of the Burundi peace process it is now," said Henri Boshoff of the Africa security analysis programme of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

"The UN, AU, the facilitators and the international community must continue to put pressure on all parties for the implementation and completion of the process."

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