November 13, 2015 / 10:15 AM / in 2 years

Burundi opposition asks U.N. to send peacekeepers quickly

Protesters prepare to throw stones at policemen during a protest against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term in Bujumbura, Burundi, in this May 20, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/Files

NAIROBI (Reuters) - A prominent Burundi opposition politician urged the United Nations on Friday to send peacekeepers quickly to help deal with rising violence, after the Security Council discussed ways to boost its presence there.

The Burundi government did not directly respond to the council’s request to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday to study ways to promote dialogue between the government and opposition amid growing international concern that the violence could spiral into an ethnic conflict.

It said the council’s call for Ban to report back on the U.N.’s options within 15 days resolution was “generally speaking” in line with its views and its desire for dialogue.

Charles Nditije, head of the opposition UPRONA group, told Reuters he also welcomed the U.N. council’s push for dialogue.

“We deplore, however, that they didn’t decide to deploy peace enforcement forces in the near future,” he said. “We also regret that they didn’t agree on sanctions.”

An earlier draft of the resolution threatened sanctions against those behind the surge in violence.

Highlighting growing concerns about unrest in Burundi, which emerged from civil war a decade ago, the European Union mission in Bujumbura said it was temporarily making a small reduction in its staff and pulling out foreign family members.

Burundi has been mired in a political crisis that has raised fears of slide into ethnic conflict in a region where memories of the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda are still raw.

Scores have died in protests and killings and hundreds of thousands have fled since President Pierre Nkurunziza said in April he would seek a third term - a move the opposition said violated the constitution and a peace treaty that ended fighting in 2005.

Nkurunziza said a court ruling allowed his bid and went on to win a disputed election in July.

Smail Chergui, the African Union’s Commissioner for Peace and Security, told reporters in Addis Ababa that he was sending AU officials to the Ugandan capital Kampala to lay groundwork to start a dialogue for Burundi.

“We hope that it will happen as soon as possible. It is only through dialogue that we can have real impact on the situation in Burundi,” he said.

Chergui said deployment of African troops was a contingency plan for the time being.

“The constitutive act gives us that opportunity (to deploy African troops) if the situation (worsens). We are discussing with them and hopefully that will be the core group for this intervention,” he said.

Government spokesman Philippe Nzobonariba said in a statement that Burundi took note of “the reasonable contents of the resolution which is generally speaking in line with what the government has always wanted”, citing dialogue in particular.

Weeks of talks earlier this year failed to bridge the divide between the opposition, which wants Nkurunziza to quit, and the government, which has said the president will serve out another term until 2020.

EU Ambassador Patrick Spirlet told Reuters the “rising risk of violence” had prompted the EU mission in Bujumbura to reduce some staff and send family members away temporarily. “The delegation will continue functioning normally,” he said.

Burundi’s 12-year civil war, which killed 300,000 people, pitted rebels of the Hutu majority against the Tutsi-led army. The same ethnic divide fueled the genocide in Rwanda, in which 800,000 mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered.

Burundi’s crisis has until now broadly followed political lines, with a mix of ethnicities in both camps. But experts say inflammatory language by some officials risks reviving ethnic rifts. The government denies using ethnically divisive language.

Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by George Obulutsa and Tom Heneghan

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