BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) _ Burundi's defense minister died today when his helicopter crashed on the way back from talks aimed at reviving the languishing peace process in the Central African nation.

Military spokesman Col. Isaie Nibizi confirmed Firmin Sinzoyiheba's death but said he had no other details.

The minister, a strong backer of Maj. Pierre Buyoya's military coup in July 1996, was returning from the central town of Gitega, 35 miles east of Bujumbura.

Hutu rebels have stepped up attacks against the capital and surrounding areas since the beginning of the year. They seek to oust the Tutsi-led government, which today began talks with opposition parties and civic leaders aimed at stopping the violence.

Hutus make up 85 percent of the population in this nation of 6 million. The Tutsis, who have traditionally dominated the country, make up 14 percent.