Nearly 100 Burundian protesters who opposed President Pierre Nkurunziza during months of violence in the capital Bujumbura have been released from prison, officials said on Tuesday, as the government held aid talks with European Union officials.
Burundi, which emerged from a 12-year civil war a decade ago, began spiralling into chaos in April when Nkurunziza announced he would seek a third term, causing months of protests in Bujumbura and a failed coup.
Bujumbura has been holding talks with European Union officials about whether the tiny East African nation can continue benefitting from EU aid after arresting hundreds of protesters, shuttering private media houses and closing bank accounts of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Deo Ruberintwari, the Interior Ministry’s permanent secretary, said the release of 97 prisoners “has no connection with the consultations under way”.
Activists and human rights groups say many of the protesters were young men who were beaten while in prison, something officials deny.
Philippe Nzobonariba, the government spokesman, said media and other organisations were closed for criminality and there was evidence a failed coup in May was financed through bank accounts of NGOs.
Nzobonariba said he expected Burundi and EU countries to come up with an agreement for vital aid flows to continue.
The United States last week warned Burundi was on the brink of civil war and will need regional mediation to establish a peace process between the government and opposition to avert a new conflict.
Regional efforts to cool Burundi’s crisis have stumbled, despite calls by the African Union and regional East African states for dialogue.
UN warns of genocide
The United Nations warned Tuesday that violence in Burundi could degenerate into genocide, and stressed the urgent need for a political dialogue.
The warning came on the eve of the first international day set aside by the UN General Assembly to commemorate the victims of genocide and work to prevent its recurrence.
Adama Dieng, a special UN adviser for the prevention of genocide, told reporters he was worried that both the government and the opposition were manipulating ethnic tensions in Burundi, pitting Hutus and Tutsis against each other.
“I am not saying that tomorrow there will be a genocide in Burundi but there is a serious risk that if we do not stop the violence this may end with a civil war and following such a civil war anything is possible,” he said.
He recalled Burundi’s history of internal violence, including a civil war that raged from 1995 to 2003, and called for “sincere and inclusive dialogue.”
“We cannot solve the problem by sending military troops,” he warned.
On September 12, the UN Security Council adopted a French-sponsored resolution authorizing possible deployments of peacekeepers to Burundi.
For now, however, the United Nations plans to send only a small team led by its envoy to Burundi, Jamal Benomar, to push for a political dialogue.