Burundi + 1 more

Zimbabwe: IRIN Focus on arms links to Burundi

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JOHANNESBURG, 3 February (IRIN) - A small magistrate's court in the northeastern Zambian border town of Nchelenge would seem be an unlikely window into the tangled web of political alliances spawned by the Great Lakes conflict, but it is there that a case is being heard that could shed light on alleged military links between Burundi rebels and regional governments.
The case involves a Zambian army major, a police officer, and six others charged with the illegal importation of weapons and ammunition. They were arrested in Nchelenge last year, on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), when a truck loaded with military equipment believed to be destined for Burundi rebels through the Tanzanian port of Kigoma was impounded. The consignment included rocket launchers, shells, grenades, G-3 rifles and ammunition.

The case, adjourned until next week, does not appear to be an isolated incident. On Monday, the private Burundi news agency Net Press reported that two boats loaded with "heavy and light" weapons and ammunition left an unnamed Zambian port on Lake Tanganyika also destined for Burundi's Conseil national pour la defense de la democratie (CNDD) rebels via Tanzania. Net Press alleged that the equipment had been supplied by Zimbabwe, which is fighting alongside Burundi and Rwandan Hutu dissidents in the DRC.

Burundi accuses Zimbabwe

The news agency also reported accusations made recently by Burundi's energy minister Bernard Barandereka that Harare was training CNDD rebels and Rwandan Interahamwe militia - responsible for the 1994 genocide - on farms in the Bulawayo area of southern Zimbabwe. News reports last year claimed that at least 300 rebels had been flown out of DRC to an airbase at Gweru and then taken to Bulawayo. Sources in Harare told IRIN that last week, Burundi officials in New York for the United Nations Security Council meeting on the DRC had intended to meet their Zimbabwean counterparts over the reports.

Richard Cornwell, an analyst at the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies, said the allegations of Zimbabwean support for the Burundi rebels is "something we've been worried about for a long time". He told IRIN that Harare appears to have made the "dangerous" decision to back opposition forces in Burundi and Rwanda in retaliation for Bujumbura and Kigali's involvement in the DRC conflict against the Kinshasa government which Harare supports.

Zimbabwe armed forces spokesman Colonel Chancellor Diye described the allegations as "completely false". He told IRIN this week: "Zimbabwe has never supported the Burundi rebels. Our foreign policy is very clearly based on non-interference. We can't be seen to be violating our own policy. We don't have any Burundians being trained here or any other foreigners."

Jerome Ndiho, the Brussels-based spokesman of CNDD-FDD, the main Burundi rebel group battling the Tutsi-led government, also denied a link to Zimbabwe. He acknowledged that while it would appear "logical" for Zimbabwe to assist, "in reality we have had no help" and CNDD-FDD's military equipment comes from "ambushes" inside Burundi. He also denied that arms were reaching the rebels through refugee camps in Tanzania.

Tit-for-tat

However, according to press reports in Zimbabwe, Harare has decided to back the CNDD faction of Leonard Nyangoma, whose party is included in the Arusha peace process, and was thought not to have significant fighting forces. The 'Zimbabwe Independent' claimed that a military cooperation agreement was signed in June last year between the government and CNDD involving training, equipment, finance and diplomatic assistance. Arms and ammunition would be supplied from stockpiles held by the Zimbabwe Defence Industries.

The newspaper alleged that Zimbabwe had set up a technical team headed by General Amoth Chimombe based in the DRC to map out a framework for cooperation. The weekly also reported the arrival of a four-man delegation to Harare in November led by Nyangoma as a follow-up to the agreement, but said there were disagreements within government over support to the rebels.

Implications for peace process

Jan Van Eck, a consultant to the Cape Town-based Centre for Conflict Resolution, said the allegations of a Zimbabwe link to the CNDD with arms transiting through Zambia were "credible". He added that the DRC conflict is "a regional war in which the rebels are all being used as allies" and that Zambia, even as an unwitting participant, was a natural conduit.

"The worrying part is if Zimbabwe is doing this, CNDD is a party included in the Arusha peace process. They are arming a group that is supposed to be negotiating peace," he told IRIN. "More worrying is that these arms will find their way to the Burundi refugee camps in Tanzania."

Van Eck, an Arusha facilitator, said the Burundi rebels are known to recruit from among the refugees in Tanzania. The camps, situated close to the border, are also believed to be staging posts for ex-Rwandan army and Interahamwe militia attacks into Rwanda.

"This is a red alert situation. We have to draw attention to the potential of a border incident between Burundi and Tanzania and possibly Rwanda," he warned.

[ENDS]

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