By Todd Pitman
KABEZI, Burundi, Feb 11 (Reuters) - A senior United Nations official said on Friday that conditions in Burundi's controversial regroupment camps were "unacceptable".
But Francis Deng, the U.N. special representative on internally displaced persons, welcomed a recent government decision to close some sites because security had improved.
"The conditions here are clearly unacceptable," Deng told Reuters on a visit to Kabezi camp, where around 40,000 people have been crowded onto several hillsides 15 km (nine miles) south of the capital.
"Just the sheer concentration of so many people, the needs they have ... it is not sustainable," Deng said.
Last year, Hutu rebels fighting a civil war against the government stepped up attacks on the outskirts of the capital.
Authorities reacted by herding around 350,000 people into more than 50 camps in hills around Bujumbura as part of a counter-insurgency measure to deprive rebels of civilian support.
Deng said security in the capital and surrounding areas had considerably improved as a result of the policy, but added it did not justify it.
"One can try to understand the government's point of view, but at the same time as you solve one problem, you create others," he said.
"The security of some of the citizens, particularly in the city, cannot be at the expense, hardship and indignity of the large numbers of people who have been put into these camps."
Authorities earlier this week began to dismantle the first of 11 sites the government said could be closed because security conditions had improved.
Deng visited the first site to be closed at Maramvya, just north of the capital, and said most people had returned home and only scattered debris was left.
Deng, who met Burundi President Pierre Buyoya and other senior officials on a six-day visit to the central African country, said authorities had promised to close 10 more camps by the end of March and another 14 sites later if security conditions permitted it.
"The most important thing now is for the international community to help these people as they return. It is important to encourage the government and we need assistance to do that," Deng said, adding that many homes had been destroyed or looted.
U.N. officials said Kabezi and other sites suffered from overcrowding, inadequate shelter and the need for medical care was evident.
More than 200,000 people have been killed in rebel attacks and reprisals by Burundi's Tutsi-led army since the country's civil war began in 1993.
A new round of peace talks aimed at ending the crisis is due to open in northern Tanzania on February 21 under the mediation of former South African President Nelson Mandela.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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