January 23, 2016 / 7:31 PM / 2 years ago

U.S. urges African leaders to sway Burundi on peacekeepers

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - The United States on Saturday urged African leaders to “work behind the scenes” before their annual summit next weekend to convince Burundi to accept a deployment of international troops in the tiny African state amid festering political violence.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, and Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza (C) speak to the press in Gitega, Burundi January 22, 2016. REUTERS/Michelle Nichols

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said members of the African Union Peace and Security Council expected leaders to endorse its proposed deployment of 5,000 troops to protect civilians, despite a rejection of the force by Burundi.

“I didn’t get a sense from the African countries gathered in the room that they’re going to take that as a final answer,” Power told reporters after a meeting between the U.N. Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council in Addis Ababa.

“As well as the AU meeting (next weekend) to endorse it, we will need leaders to work behind the scenes to get the Burundi government to change its position,” she said. 

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza says the plan to send peacekeepers would constitute “an invading force”. Nkurunziza’s re-election for a third term last year sparked the crisis, which has raised fears of an ethnic conflict in a region where memories of neighboring Rwanda’s 1994 genocide remain fresh.

The U.N. Security Council traveled to Burundi on Thursday for one night, it’s second visit to the country in less than 10 months. The United Nations estimates the death toll at 439 people but says it could be higher. More than 240,000 people have fled abroad and the country’s economy is in crisis. 

The African Union plans to seek U.N. Security Council backing for any deployment of troops. France will draft a resolution, Deputy U.N. Ambassador Alexis Lamek said, adding that an initial priority was to send some 100 AU human rights and military observers to Burundi.

Russia’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Petr Iliichev said the situation in Burundi appeared to be improving, but not to the point where “we can say we should put it on the back burner.”

“For us it will be very difficult to oppose any resolution from the African Union because we always say that there should be African solutions to African problems,” he said of any request for U.N. authorization to deploy troops. Russia is a council veto power.

“There are no signs of genocide, but there is potential for genocide ... but there is no imminent threat,” he said. Iliichev said on Friday that Burundi did not need peacekeepers and instead needed help increasing its police capacity.

During a meeting with the U.N. Security Council on Friday, Nkurunziza accused neighboring Rwanda of supporting rebels by training and arming Burundian refugees recruited on Rwandan soil. Rwanda has previously dismissed the allegations. 

“It is in the interests of the Burundian government to consent to having an enhanced African presence in Burundi to monitor the border, to disarm those elements outside the traditional security forces and to help stabilize the situation,” Power said. 

Burundi and Rwanda have the same ethnic mix - about 85 percent Hutus and 15 percent Tutsis. A 12-year civil war in Burundi, which ended in 2005, pitted a Tutsi-led army against Hutu rebel groups.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool

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