Burundians would fight against any peacekeepers sent into the country by the African Union, the nation’s president declared Wednesday in his first public response to the regional body’s plan to put an end to spiraling violence.
An uptick in political rhetoric reminiscent of that which preceded neighboring Rwanda’s 1994 genocide has led to international calls for dialogue between Burundi’s rival factions. Many fear tensions are edging Burundi toward a return to out-and-out bloodshed; a decade after the country’s 12-year civil war between Hutu rebels and a Tutsi-led army came to an end.
In an effort to avoid that outcome, the African Union (AU) said this month it was ready to send 5,000 peacekeepers to protect civilians caught up in months of violence, invoking for the first time powers to intervene in a member state against its will.
But President Pierre Nkurunziza has warned against such a move
"Everyone has to respect Burundi borders," Nkurunziza said Wednesday in comments broadcast on state radio.
"In case they violate those principles, they will have attacked the country and every Burundian will stand up and fight against them ... The country will have been attacked and it will respond," he said. Other government officials have already said any peacekeepers arriving without Burundi's permission would violate its sovereignty.
Nkurunziza also reiterated the government's position that any opposition members who had taken part in a failed coup in May should be barred from participating in peace talks, which kicked off this week in Kampala, Uganda.
"We saw them the other day in Kampala as government opponents," he said. "We can’t accept this. They must be arrested... Instead of bringing them to talks, they should instead bring them to the court."
The talks, brokered by the East African Community regional bloc, were expected to reconvene in Tanzania next month, but it remains unclear if Burundi's government will participate if they do not agree on which individuals represent the opposition.
The AU on Wednesday threatened to sanction Burundi's rival factions if they failed to attend peace talks next month, as it pushes the government to accept a peacekeeping force.
Ugandan officials said talks would resume on January 6 but the Burundi government delegation said "no consensus" had been reached on the date. AU Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma warned of sanctions if violence continues and talks do not go ahead.
"All those whose action could jeopardize the inter-Burundian dialogue, including attacks by armed groups against governmental facilities and other targets, as well as refusal to respond to the invitation of the mediator, shall be subjected to sanctions," Dlamini-Zuma said in a statement seen Wednesday.
She gave no further details of possible sanctions, which have been threatened before, but called for "unreserved cooperation" with the peace process "in order to put an end to the violence."
More than 400 people have been killed and 220,000 have fled to neighboring countries since the crisis erupted in April, triggered by Nkurunziza's bid for a third term. Opposition groups took to the streets saying he was violating constitutional term limits. But he pointed to a court order allowing his campaign and was re-elected in a disputed July vote.
Continued clashes and targeted assassinations in the central African nation have unsettled a region where memories of bloodshed on a large scale are still raw.
Burundi 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.
Al Jazeera and wire services