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Mandela Spotlights Burundi War

January 19, 2000

UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ Nelson Mandela brought Burundi’s civil war to the United Nations’ spotlight today as part of a new effort to revive peace talks and end a conflict that has left more than 200,000 people dead and tens of thousands in dire humanitarian straits.

At a meeting of the Security Council, Mandela chided Burundi’s negotiators for having failed the country and the continent by allowing the violence in the small Central African nation to spiral.

``The misery of the Burundian people affects us all and diminishes the humanity of all of us,″ Mandela told the council after receiving a standing ovation.

Burundi’s civil war has been raging for six years, but it has not received the same international attention as other conflicts _ even those in Africa. Donor nations have provided only about 17 percent of the $83.6 million requested last year by U.N. agencies to provide basic humanitarian aid to Burundians.

Mandela, the former South African president, was appointed by African leaders in December to mediate Burundi’s stalled peace talks and use his diplomatic skills, widely respected on the continent and elsewhere, to bring an end to the conflict.

U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the current council president, invited Mandela to appear before ambassadors in today’s session to highlight the volatile situation in the country and give impetus to the peace process.

Fighting between Burundi’s Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-dominated army has killed more than 200,000 people since 1993.

The majority of Burundi’s 6.5 million people are Hutu, but Tutsis have dominated the government, the military and the economy since independence from Belgium in 1962.

Senior U.N. officials told reporters last week that, if unchecked, the fighting _ which has been on the increase in recent months _ could slide Burundi back into an era of large-scale killings seen in the country the mid-1990s.

``The real challenge facing Burundi, and hence the facilitation, is that of creating a form of democracy that provides for accountable and responsive government and ensures security for those, who for reasons of demography, feel vulnerable within such a system,″ Mandela said.

In response to fears of increased violence in the capital, Bujumbura, Burundi’s Tutsi army has forced more than 320,000 people, mainly Hutu civilians, into 53 ``regroupment″ camps. The government hopes to clear the countryside of all but the Hutu insurgents in order to pursue them freely.

The United Nations and human rights organizations have condemned the policy, which U.N. officials say clearly violates international humanitarian law.

Burundi’s U.N. ambassador, Marc Nteturuye, disputed the U.N. claims, telling a press conference that security had improved dramatically since the regroupment camps were established in October and claiming humanitarian access to the camps wasn’t restricted.

In his speech to the council, Secretary-General Kofi Annan harshly criticized the policy, saying it was ``inhumane and illegal.″

``We are on the verge of another humanitarian catastrophe for which the world will undoubtedly hold the government of Burundi responsible,″ Annan told the council.

U.N. officials say aid agencies are only able to reach a fraction of the settlements. Malnutrition is rising and the death rate is ``unacceptably high,″ one official said, speaking at a news conference on condition he not be identified.

A coalition of U.N. agencies and other organizations working in Burundi, including UNICEF, the World Bank and the Red Cross, issued a statement today expressing their ``strong opposition″ to the policy, which they said was being implemented without regard to the rights or well-being of those affected.

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