Pressure to sign peace deal threatens to unravel Burundi

BUJUMBURA, Burundi - Lending his prestige to a faltering peace process, President Clinton travels to Africa next week to witness an agreement aimed at ending seven years of civil war in Burundi.

But as Nelson Mandela struggles to get Tutsi and Hutu leaders to accept a peace deal they say they are not ready for, militants on both sides say that for them any peace deal will be a declaration of war.

President Pierre Buyoya has pleaded with the former South African president to extend an Aug. 28 deadline for signing an agreement. Without a cease-fire from Hutu rebels, the retired Tutsi major has had little luck convincing war-wearied Burundians of a peace agreement's merits.

On Monday, Buyoya warned Tutsi hard-liners who oppose the peace deal not to try to stage a coup against him, a remarkable statement that revealed his vulnerability and his uncertainty of support from the Tutsi-dominated army.

Buyoya also canceled a trip to meet Mandela in South Africa on Tuesday. Instead, he stayed home to chair a cabinet meeting ahead of his trip to Arusha, Tanzania, for next Monday's signing ceremony, spokesman Appolinaire Gahuzu said.

With Clinton scheduled to attend, Buyoya is loath to boycott the ceremony and snub such an important world leader.

''It seems as if the mediator is reluctant to postpone the signing of a peace agreement,'' Buyoya said Monday, adding that if he didn't sign, ''Mandela will see this as a sign of disrespect and that we, the Burundians, do not want peace.''

The 19 political and special interest groups represented at the talks have been meeting for more than two years. Although the key facilitator, Tanzanian judge Mark Bomani, says they have agreed on more than 100 topics, several key problems remain.

Mandela's draft proposal calls for power-sharing in the army, government and parliament, free elections after three years of transition and an amnesty for those responsible for more than 200,000 deaths since the war began in 1993.

But the two main actors - the Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-dominated army - have been unable to agree on a cease-fire or the future of the army.

Buyoya, Hutu politicians and Tutsi opposition leaders cannot agree on a transitional president. Buyoya wants the job for himself but does not necessarily meet the qualifications because of he is widely believed to have been involved in the 1993 assassination of Burundi's first democratically elected president, a Hutu.

The United States has no stated national interests in Burundi, a small tea and coffee growing nation, but wants to see an end to the humanitarian disaster in which more than a million Hutus live as refugees in Tanzania. Many Tutsis are forced to spend nights in army-protected camps.

The U.S. government donated $35 million in aid last year alone, and gave an extra $1 million to finance the Arusha negotiations in the hope of stabilizing the region. Only six years ago in neighboring Rwanda, more than 500,000 Tutsis were killed in massacres orchestrated by that nation's extremist Hutu government.

Buyoya says he could sign on Monday if pressured by Mandela, but only on the points already agreed upon. He wants to leave the cease-fire and leadership issues for later.

But on Tuesday, those points supposedly already worked out were suddenly called into question when the 10 Tutsi political parties jointly called for the accord to be completely renegotiated and refused to sign.

The seven Hutu political parties have agreed in principle to sign, but they have little or no influence over the rebels.

With the signing date approaching and Buyoya wavering, the Hutu rebels have launched a series of well-organized attacks aimed at military targets. In the last three weeks, rebel ambushes have killed 27 army cadets coming home from a basketball game and a top military commander and his escort returning from the capital.

The attacks have led to military reprisals in Hutu villages around the capital, and the fighting has only hardened the army's reluctance to share power.

Tutsi hardline leaders have flatly refused to take part in the negotiations, saying they will not deal with Hutu rebel and political leaders with blood on their hands.

On the streets, about 6,000 university students have been on strike since Monday and police have detained trade union leaders who called for a general strike for Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Hutu rebels are divided.

Jean-Bosco Ndayigenkurukiye, leader of the main rebel group, the Front for the Defense of Democracy, says he will not sign unless 11,000 rebel activists or sympathizers are freed from government jails. The second rebel group, Forces for the National Liberation, did not even participate in the negotiations, demanding the unconditional surrender of power.

Failing any major breakthroughs, both groups have pledged to keep fighting.


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