Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio de Mello, who arrives in Bujumbura today, to encourage the new African peacekeeping force in Burundi to protect civilians.
The Human Rights Watch briefing paper, "Burundi: Civilians Pay the Price of Faltering Peace Process," documents the recent massacre of at least thirty-two and possibly more than eighty civilians by Burundian army soldiers.
According to the briefing paper, Burundian soldiers attacked the hill Mwegereza in the eastern province of Ruyigi on January 19. After chasing rebel combatants from the hill, the army troops massacred civilians, including members of a Burundian church group who had gathered to pray together. Burundian soldiers also raped women from the area, burned and pillaged homes, and refused to allow people who fled to return to gather harvests and work their fields.
A ceasefire agreement signed on December 3, 2002 was supposed to end military operations, but its vague wording and lack of implementation left the way open to continuing clashes. On February 21, the rebel force, National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil National pour la Défense de la Democratie-Forces pour la Défense de la Democratie, CNDD-FDD), renounced the agreement and broke off negotiations with the Burundian government.
"Protecting civilians needs to be the top priority of the new African peacekeeping force," said Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "The international community should help to make that happen."
Burundian military authorities have prevented humanitarian agencies from delivering food and medicine to displaced persons in Ruyigi, claiming that insecurity makes it impossible for agency representatives to enter the region.
On February 21, a military court acquitted two officers accused of directing the massacre of 173 civilians at Itaba in September 2002. The president of the court said that he personally thought the operation had been well conducted and he sentenced the defendants to only four months in prison on charges of not having followed orders. Since the defendants had been in custody for five months, they were immediately released. They had spent less than one day in jail for each person killed.
"With that kind of justice," said Des Forges, "soldiers will expect no punishment for their crimes and will keep on killing and otherwise abusing civilians."
According to the briefing paper, FDD combatants killed and raped civilians and pillaged and burned their homes. The rebel movement violated the ceasefire by continuing to enlist combatants, many of them children, and by trying to increase areas under its control.
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