Hutu rebels in Burundi reject Nelson Mandela as a mediator, saying he sided with their Tutsi enemies while he was in power.
By CHRIS MCGREAL in Johannesburg
Hope that Nelson Mandela might bring an end to one of Africa's most bitter and bloody civil wars - the six-year conflict between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi that has claimed close to 300 000 lives - has started to fade after the country's two main rebel armies rejected his appointment as the new mediator for peace talks.
The leader of the Hutu rebel Forces for the Defence of Democracy, Jean Bosco Ndayikengurukiye, accused Mr Mandela of backing Burundi's Tutsi military government when he was president of South Africa.
"We have proof the government of South Africa helped the putschist government of Burundi with arms and helped them bypass a regional embargo," he said. "There is no point in sitting down with these people."
The hardline Hutu Palipahutu faction also rejected Mr Mandela's appointment, saying it could not guarantee his safety if he travelled to Burundi.
Mr Mandela replaced the late former Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, as mediator. Burundi's government had accused Mr Nyerere of favouring the Hutu rebels, and said he had become an impediment to a settlement.
But Mr Mandela's advisers believe his credibility is such that, despite the rebels' rejection, he will at least get all of Burundi's antagonists around the same table for the first time since the civil war started after Tutsi soldiers murdered Burundi's first elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, in 1993 because he was Hutu.
Nearly two years of negotiation have faltered in part because Mr Nyerere refused to permit Mr Ndayikengurukiye's army to join the talks after it broke away from another rebel group.
Mr Mandela says he will adopt a different approach. "We can't sideline anybody who can create instability in the country," he said. "We must find ways of accommodating them in these discussions, either by inviting them to join or by addressing them separately, but we cannot ignore them."
Mr Mandela may be Burundi's last chance for a negotiated settlement of a war that is effectively tied to the conflicts in neighbouring Congo and Rwanda.
Jan van Eck, a former African National Congress member of parliament who has been working on the Burundi peace process for five years, says that without progress at the talks the war will escalate.
"The internal Burundian security, economic and political situation is fast deteriorating and fragmenting," he said in his latest report. "The spectre of a new and more disastrous regional war, with even more pronounced ethnic overtones, is looming larger by the day."
Burundi's civil war has intensified in recent months with rebel attacks close to the capital, Bujumbura. The government has responded by forcing about 800 000 Hutu villagers into what it calls relocation camps, but which the rebels describe as concentration camps.
Although the military government of Major Pierre Buyoya has managed to co-opt Hutu and Tutsi politicians into what he describes as a broad-based administration, his opponents accuse him of manoeuvring to maintain political and economic domination by the Tutsi minority.
As the government provides about three-quarters of all fulltime employment, whoever runs the state controls the jobs. Tutsis in Bujumbura fear a Hutu-run administration will throw them out of work.
Despite the rebels' call for the restoration of democracy, Mr Mandela's advisers say fresh elections are not even on the agenda. They are considering a nominated "transitional" administration of at least five years, with a 10-year mandate also a possibility.
However, the greatest obstacle to a settlement is security. Hutus were the target of attempted genocide by the overwhelmingly Tutsi army in 1972. And President Ndadaye's assassination provoked another bout of bloodletting, during which about 150 000 Hutus and Tutsis were killed.
The Hutu rebels are demanding to be integrated into the Tutsi-dominated army, and to make up at least half of the force. But many Tutsis fear that if they lose control of the military, there will be little to prevent Burundi from succumbing to a repetition of the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.
-- The Guardian, January 4 2000.