By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - The African Union said on Friday that it has appointed five heads of state to try to convince the government of Burundi to accept a peacekeeping force that its leader has rejected.
Nine months of violence sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term has already left more than 400 people dead, in a country that emerged from an ethnically charged civil war in 2005.
The bloc's Peace and Security Council announced plans in December to deploy a 5,000-strong force, saying it could invoke an article of the AU's charter that allowed it to intervene whether or not the government agreed.
Nkurunziza, however, is steadfastly opposed to the plan, saying its deployment would amount to an invasion.
On Friday, the Ethiopia-based bloc said it has appointed presidents Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania, Gabon's Ali Bongo, Macky Sall of Senegal, South Africa's Jacob Zuma, and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn as members of a panel that will travel to Burundi for talks with Nkurunziza.
In its statement, the bloc did not say when the panel would travel to the country.
The decision to form a high-level panel was made at last month's African Union summit after leaders sought Nkurunziza's consent, to no avail.
Western powers are pressing African states to intervene to prevent Burundi sliding back into the kind of ethnically charged conflict it witnessed in a civil war that ended a decade ago.
A senior Western diplomat who followed proceedings during last month's summit told Reuters the AU may also ask the U.N. Security Council to exert pressure with a possible threat of sanctions if Burundi refuses.
(Reporting by Aaron Maasho; Editing by Dominic Evans)