UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Members of the U.N. Security Council are going to Burundi later this week with three goals — to try to break the cycle of violence and prevent ethnic attacks from erupting, to promote peace talks, and to encourage respect for human rights, France's U.N. ambassador said Tuesday.
Ambassador Francois Delattre said the council's second visit to the central African nation in nine months will demonstrate its concern about escalating violence and human rights abuses, and its determination to prevent "the genie of ethnic violence to go out of the bottle."
France, the United States and Angola are leading the 15-member council delegation that will be in Burundi on Thursday and Friday.
President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to seek re-election last April touched off street protests that led to a failed coup in May and a rebellion that has left the country on the brink of civil war. Opponents and supporters of Nkurunziza in the capital, Bujimbura, have been targeting each other in gun, rocket and grenade attacks and the violence has spread to the provinces. There has been a wave of extrajudicial killings that human rights activists blame on government security forces.
The visit follows U.N. human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein's scathing criticism last Friday of what he described as gang rapes of women in Burundi by security forces, torture and signs of ethnic repression. His office cited growing signs that Tutsis were being targeted in the Hutu-majority country that is next to Rwanda, where a 1994 Hutu-led genocide targeted Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
"All the alarm signals, including the increasing ethnic dimension of the crisis, are flashing red," Zeid said.
The U.N. says more than 230,000 people have fled Burundi since April 2015, and Zeid's office said 432 people have been killed in violence.
Jamal Benomar, the U.N. special adviser for Burundi, said Monday that the country is facing an "insurgency and counter-insurgency" as well as an "urban guerrilla movement" that the government is responding to.
U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson stressed the importance of the council's trip, pointing to "very worrying signs on the ground, and also certain nervousness in Rwanda, that also is of concern."
"What must not happen in Burundi is that this conflict moves from a political phase to an ethnic phase," Eliasson told reporters on Tuesday. "When you take that step then we always pay a price because then there is a new element entering the conflict which would be much harder to control."
Benomar said everyone in Burundi agrees on the need for dialogue, but the problem is reaching agreement on the process.
"Any viable process will have to be inclusive and nationally owned," Benomar said.
The East African Community mandated Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni as mediator to try to get intra-Burundian talks started but it took six months to hold a meeting, and nothing was decided at that meeting on Dec. 28.
Angola's U.N. Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins said the council's main objective is to convey a clear message "that we want Burundians to engage seriously in a dialogue" which is the only way to end the violence and human rights abuses.
He said the council is going to work with the African Union and Uganda to see if the region can get the parties together.
"If not, we are ready to step in," Gaspar Martins said.
In response to the escalating crisis, the African Union in mid-December authorized the deployment of 5,000 peacekeeping troops to Burundi but Nkurunziza's government rejected the AU decision. The government has also rejected additional human rights monitors.
A confidential report from the U.N. peacekeeping department to the Security Council, obtained last week by The Associated Press, said U.N. peacekeeping troops should be deployed to Burundi only as a last resort if violence worsens. The report makes clear that the best option in the event of escalating violence would be intervention by a single country or a coalition of nations — but it said the focus now should be on trying to promote political dialogue and deploying the AU force.