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US urges dialogue in Burundi amid 'disturbing' rhetoric from leaders

EU evacuates non-essential staff as observers say leaders' recent speeches similar to those preceding Rwanda genocide

U.S. diplomats on Friday pushed for peace talks in Burundi, as the European Union advised non-essential staff to evacuate the central African nation amid an uptick in political rhetoric reminiscent of that preceding Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Many fear the tensions are edging Burundi toward a return to out-and-out bloodshed, a decade after the country’s 12-year civil war came to an end.

Tom Perriello, the U.S. envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes region, was visiting nearby Uganda to consult with its president on how to restart Burundi negotiations, said Okello Oryem, Uganda’s deputy foreign minister. A regional bloc has nominated Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to act as mediator in Burundi’s political crisis — sparked in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would seek a third term, which critics said violated a constitutional limit of two terms.

At least 240 people have been killed in the violent street protests and a government crackdown that witnesses say targeted opposition members in a series of killings. The capital, Bujumbura, has remained unstable — with gunfire and explosions frequently heard —after Nkurunziza’s eventual re-election in July. The United States and African Union condemned the elections as "not free or fair."

The EU said Friday that non-essential staff and their families from its Burundi delegation would be temporarily evacuated. An EU official told AFP that despite the pullout, the bloc’s mission in the central African country “will continue functioning normally.”

Belgium, the country’s former colonial ruler, said earlier in the day that it has also advised its non-essential staff to leave Burundi.

A prominent opposition politician in Burundi on Friday called on the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force to help cope with the surge in violence. A day earlier, the United Nations Security Council said it was looking for ways to boost its presence in the country. The council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the killings, and urged Burundi’s government to “immediately convene an inclusive and genuine inter-Burundian dialogue.”

Charles Nditije, head of Burundi’s opposition UPRONA group, said he welcomed the U.N. push for dialogue.

“We deplore, however, that they didn’t decide to deploy peace enforcement forces in the near future,” he said. “We also regret that they didn’t agree on sanctions.”

More than 200,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries since April, the U.N. said. Burundi ended a 12-year civil war between Hutu rebels and a Tutsi-led army in 2005, and the country has an ethnic divide similar to the one that led to neighboring Rwanad’a 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people — mainly Tutsis and moderate Hutus — were massacred.

Many Burundi observers said there has been an escalation of dangerous rhetoric not heard since then.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power tweeted on Nov. 5 that Nkurunziza’s call for a security crackdown — along with dangerous words used by the Senate president, including “exterminate” and “pulverize” — risked greater violence.

On Nov. 2, Nkurunziza made a national broadcast promising insurgents amnesty if they disarmed within five days. He said that it was their “last call,” and that police were close to restoring calm but still had to destroy a “small group of killers” still at work, Jeune Afrique reported.

A day earlier, Senate President Reverien Ndikuriyo told his supporters, “If you hear the signal with an instruction that it must end, emotions and tears have no place,” Jeune Afrique reported. Ndikuriyo used the term “work” in his call, an expression that was used during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

French historian Jean-Pierre Chretien, author of “Burundi 1972: At the Edge of Genocide,” said several recent speeches and statements by Burundi leaders “are indeed disturbing,” in an interview last week in Jeune Afrique.

“It is reminiscent of the themes of extremist propaganda in Rwanda in the 1990s,” Chretien said.

Unlike neighboring Rwanda, Burundi did not face the same issues of ethnic distinctions between Hutu and Tutsis at its independence, he said, but some of the tensions have spilled over from Rwanda.

“Waves of massacres or killings aimed against Hutu or Tutsi Burundians have often echoed Rwandan political tensions. But these crises are first linked to the contradictions of Burundi’s internal politics,” Chretien said.

“In the circles of power, there are leaders who want to deliberately stir the ‘ethnic’ spectrum.”

With wire services

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