Burundi to hold talks, free prisoners to stem violence

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon speaks at the donors Conference for Syria in London, Britain February 4, 2016. REUTERS/Andy Rain/Pool

Burundi is to hold political talks to try to end months of violence, President Pierre Nkurunziza said on Tuesday after meeting U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Ban said Nkurunziza had also promised to lift media restrictions, and the presidency said 2,000 prisoners would be freed, although the opposition was skeptical, doubting whether it would include its supporters.

Diplomatic efforts are mounting to the quell fighting in the central African nation 10 years after it emerged from an ethnically charged civil war. Three people were killed in attacks in the capital on the eve of Ban’s visit.

More than 400 people have been killed since April when Nkurunziza said he would run for a third term, triggering street protests and a coup attempt. Opposition parties say his election bid, which he went on to win, was unconstitutional.

“Burundians and U.N. agree that inter-Burundian dialogue shall bring together Burundians but the perpetrators of insecurity … will not be involved,” Nkurunziza told a joint news conference with Ban in Bujumbura.

The government has in the past said it will not hold talks with anyone who was involved in the failed coup attempt in May.

Ban met leaders of political parties in Bujumbura, then went to the president’s office on Tuesday.

“I was very encouraged that the political leaders whether they are … in government or the ruling party or opposition, they promised that they will engage in inclusive dialogue. This is what President Nkurunziza also confirmed,” Ban said.

Ban said freeing prisoners was “an encouraging step”. I hope again that additional measures will be taken,” he added.

Thacien Sibomana, spokesman for the opposition’s UPRONA party, was more cautious about the announcement.

“We are not sure if he will free opponents. We fear that he may only release his own men. What criteria will he (Nkurunziza) use?” he said.

African powers are particularly worried about the violence in a country where memories are still fresh of the genocide in neighboring Rwanda in 1994. Burundi has a similar ethnic make-up to Rwanda.

South African President Jacob Zuma is heading to Bujumbura on Thursday and Friday with the leaders of Mauritania, Senegal, Gabon and Ethiopia for talks about the political situation.

Nkurunziza has rejected African Union plans to send in peacekeepers, saying he would see their arrival as an invasion.

In his talks with Ban, Nkurunziza reiterated his accusations that Rwanda was interfering in Burundi’s internal affairs.

“We have asked for their (U.N.) support to help us and regarding Rwanda, to stop provoking us, so we can go back to having good neighborly relations like we used to,” he said.

Burundi accused Rwanda in December of supporting a rebel group that was recruiting Burundian refugees on Rwandan soil, but Rwandan President Paul Kagame dismissed the allegations.


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