BUJUMBURA (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council met with Burundi’s president on Friday to push for peace talks and an international force to quell worsening political violence, but U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said little was achieved.
The meeting came a day after rebels in the tiny African state raised the stakes in the crisis by declaring a general who led a failed coup in May as their leader, deepening concerns that Burundi is sliding back into conflict after its ethnically charged civil war ended in 2005.
The 15-member council, which arrived in Burundi’s lakeside capital Bujumbura on Thursday, met with President Pierre Nkurunziza in Gitega for more than two hours. It is the council’s second visit to Burundi in less than a year.
“I’m here to guarantee that there will not ever be another genocide in Burundi,” the president told the council.
Power made clear that the council wants to see more dialogue and an enhanced U.N. presence in Burundi.
“None of us want the situation in Burundi to deteriorate, we’re here because we want to support efforts at dialogue, because we believe as a council that a more substantial international presence here can help, we conveyed those points to the president,” Power told reporters after the meeting.
“In this meeting we did not achieve as much, frankly, as I think we would have liked. But we never give up, the cause of peace in Burundi is too important to give up,” she said.
Nkurunziza’s re-election for a third term sparked the crisis, which has raised fears of an ethnic conflict in a region where memories of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide remain fresh.
The government insists there is no ethnic bias, but opponents say districts of Bujumbura where many Tutsis live - and which were also hotbeds of protest against Nkurunziza last year - have been targeted with some Tutsis singled out.
The United Nations estimates the death toll at 439 people but says it could be higher. More than 240,000 people have fled abroad.
The rebel group, FOREBU, announced on Thursday that it was now commanded by the former intelligence chief, General Godefroid Niyombare. The group said it welcomed international mediation but also called for Burundians to support their fight against Nkurunziza.
“This development shows why the U.N. Security Council is concerned about the risk of a downward cycle of violence,” British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told Reuters.
Burundi’s government has accused neighboring Rwanda of supporting a rebel group by training and arming Burundian refugees recruited on Rwandan soil. Nkurunziza raised those accusations again on Friday with the Security Council.
“The threat is not from within Burundi, it comes from outside,” he told the council. “The Rwandan government must be told to stop.”
Rwanda has previously dismissed the allegations.
“We’ve expressed concern about the allegations of external interference ... and it’s very important that nobody support armed opposition groups no matter what they assess the history,” Power said.
The president has rejected the deployment of an African peacekeeping force, saying the troops would constitute “an invading force”. The issue is expected to be a focus for an African Union summit at the end of January.
“It’s not peacekeepers that the Burundians need. What they need is to increase their own capacity, especially their police capacity,” Russia’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Petr Iliichev told Reuters.
“Maybe what we need is some kind of policing mission, either advisors, either trainers or maybe formed police units that will be deployed in Bujumbura ... from the African Union or the U.N.,” he said.
Months of talks between the government and the opposition last year failed to make progress. New negotiations begun at the end of December in Uganda have already stalled.
Nkurunziza backed Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s mediation efforts.
“We told (the Security Council) that he is somebody who knows very well the problems of Burundi,” Nkurunziza told reporters after the meeting.
Regional Western diplomats say the government has set too many conditions about who can attend talks to make them meaningful. They also say rebels may believe they can make more gains through force of arms than at the negotiating table.
Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alison Williams, Drazen Jorgic, Larry King and Chizu Nomiyama