by Morice Maunya
Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, PANA - The presence of hundreds of thousands of Burundi refugees in Tanzania is creating mounting political tensions between the two countries which can no longer hide their animosities toward each other.
An angry Benjamin Mkapa on 1 December told off Burundi's military ruler Major Pierre Buyoya to stop "baseless accusations" that Tanzania had been training and arming Burundi-refugees-cum-guerrillas.
Early this year a Tanzanian newspaper carried a long interview with Buyoya in which the Burundi president minced no words in blaming Mkapa's government for allegedly harbouring Hutu militias masquerading as refugees in Tanzania.
In the intervening period there have been reports of both countries mobilising their troops along the common border. Buyoya had insisted that Tanzania-based rebels had been making forays deep into Burundi territory with the full knowledge of the authorities in Dar Es Salaam.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in Dar Es Salaam 30 November that refugees fleeing to Tanzania had reported "high Burundian military presence along the border."
The current tension is due to the large number of Burundi refugees already in Tanzania, some of whom might have been involved in anti-government political activities in their country of origin. But the majority are women and children fleeing clashes between rebel and Burundi government forces.
During the last three months, the volatile pressures in the land-locked nation had been building up again, forcing a frightful new wave of migrants to cross the border into Tanzanian refugee camps.
About 20,000 refugees crossed the border between September and November, an average of 220 new arrivals per day. It is roughly the population of a rural community, packing and leaving every day.
The UNHCR office in Dar Es Salaam has attributed the new influx to heightened insecurity and clashes between rebel and government forces in Burundi. It said that some 2,199 arrivals were recorded in September, 8,132 in October and 9,254 as on 24 November.
According to UNHCR, the population of Burundi refugee in Tanzania at the end of November was over 288,000.
Still, even the UNHCR admitted that these were only the official records relating to migrants in the refugee camps. These figures offer a limited picture of what might be taking place in Burundi and may not necessarily be the actual number of those who set out to flee the chaos, some of whom might have well disappeared in the bush.
"New arrivals claim that battles between the Burundi army and rebels had intensified over control of the civilian population, with rebels trying to thwart the army's 'regroupement' policy," UNHCR spokesman Vincent Kwesi Parker said.
"Other reasons given by them for their flight include fear of attacks from the military, attacks from Tutsi and Twa civilians armed with machetes, axes, hoes and other weapons.
"They further reported that the authorities are forcibly regrouping the Hutu population into regroupement sites and the Tutsi civilians are being pushed to so-called protected sites which include military barracks."
Escalated insecurity between September-November coincided with the period when Burundi peace negotiations grounded to a stalemate, partly due to death of the Tanzanian former president Julius Nyerere, then the facilitator of the talks.
There was also the disagreement among the negotiating parties on whether to bring in a splinter faction of one rebel groupin the talks.
The UNHCR said last week that more Burundians are reportedly ready to cross over into Tanzania but are cautious due to the high Burundian military presence along the border.
"Those who succeed in crossing do so at great risk, sometimes at night, to avoid soldiers by using more indirect routes that take longer time than usual (one to four days)," the UNHCR spokesman said.
In view of the increased insecurity, the UNHCR had stopped repatriation of Burundi refugees since mid October 1999. Other UN agencies have also stopped operations outside Bujumbura for the same reason.
Between January and October, the UNHCR had repatriated voluntarily some 10,772 Burundian refugees, mainly to the provinces of Muyinga and Ruyigi.
At the recent Great Lakes summit in Arusha, Mkapa urged Buyoya's government to create conditions that would make it unnecessary for Burundians to flee their country.
The endorsement of former South African president Nelson Mandela as the new facilitator of the Burundi peace talks and their early resumption is seen as the last chance to resolve the Burundi conflict once and for all.
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