Burundi: Peace negotiations between government and rebels slow-moving

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Negotiations about the implementation of a 2006 peace deal between the last armed rebel group in Burundi, the PALIPEHUTU-FNL, and the government is slowing down, creating certain unease amongst the international facilitators and the local population. Some commentators fear a return to open hostilities between the two parties as in April this year.

The negotiations resumed in May 2008, more than a year after the signing of a ceasefire agreement and the return of the FNL rebel leader. However, progress towards the demobilisation of the reportedly 21,000 fighters is reportedly slow. The main contentious point of the negotiation, legal recognition of the rebel movement as a political party, still hinges on what the party should be called. 'PALIPEHUTU' means the party for the liberation of the Hutu people.

The government asserts that the country's constitution prohibits the use of the name 'PALIPEHUTU' (the party for the liberation of the Hutu people) as it has ethnic connotations. Nonetheless, the PALIPEHUTU-FNL refuses bow down on this issue. FNL officials affirm that the current government party, itself a former rebel group, did not change its name. With elections in 2010, FNL members are becoming more and more impatient to clarify the party's position in the political landscape.

According to the UN, international mediators had given the two parties until the end of 2008 to reach a conclusive agreement. In case of failure, they have suggested that sanctions will be imposed by the international community. A visit by the South African mediator in late October did not help to push the parties forward, the press reported.

A growing frustration amongst the population could be observed on 28 October, when, according to the UN, several demonstrators took to the streets distributing anti-government material in the capital, Bujumbura, and other big cities. The FNL denied any association with this "spontaneous movement" in favour of peace. The interior minister, Aimé Nkurunziza, stated that this disturbance of public order would not go unpunished.

Meanwhile, on 23 October, a military tribunal convicted 15 soldiers for the massacre of 31 civilians in the northeastern province of Muyinga over two years ago. The commanding officer, Colonel Vital Bangirinama, was found guilty in absentia and sentenced to death. He had fled Burundi in January 2008 after learning that the military prosecutor intended to arrest him. An earlier warrant for his arrest had been suspended by President Nkurunziza.

Between June and August 2006, at least 31 civilians, suspected by the military of being FNL supporters, were killed. Their bodies were found handcuffed floating in a river. For two years, Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups pressured the government to prosecute the authors of the crime. In a statement released on 24 October, Human Rights Watch described the verdict as "a victory" and "an important blow" against impunity in Burundi.

Burundi, a small landlocked country in central Africa, is struggling to emerge from more than a decade of civil war. More than 300,000 people were reportedly killed and many more displaced during the war, which was triggered by the assassination of the first democratically elected president in 1993.

JRS works in three eastern provinces supporting the reintegration of former refugees exiled in Tanzania.