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Rebel Kidnappers Threaten Burundi's Peace Process

A recent surge in kidnapping is raising more doubts about prospects for peace in Burundi. Human rights groups are calling for the immediate release of school children who have been abducted by rebels.

Burundi's eight-year civil war has taken a sinister turn with the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolchildren by rebels. Last week almost 400 young people were abducted in separate raids on primary and boarding schools in Burundi and a refugee camp in Tanzania.

Though many of the children have managed to escape, Amnesty International is urgently calling on the rebels to release those still missing. The group has feared what will happen to the children if they remain in rebel custody.

Godfrey Byaruhanga, a researcher on Central Africa for Amnesty International in London, says the rebels and the government often force schoolboys to become soldiers. "Our sources in Burundi suggest the children have been taken away to be press-ganged into joining the armed opposition groups. These armed opposition groups have indeed had a policy of recruiting very young people, including children as young as 12 years old. And unfortunately also sometimes the government forces have been recruiting children," he said.

In a statement issued Tuesday, another rights group, Human Rights Watch, acknowledged that both sides in Burundi have used children to fight, but it says, quote, "dragging large numbers of students from schools to make them soldiers represents a new and alarming practice." The New York-based group has called on Nelson Mandela, chief mediator in the Burundi peace process, and the United Nations Security Council to make a plea for the release of the students.

A new transitional power-sharing government was installed in Burundi on November 1, with the aim of bringing an end to the war that pits rebels from the Hutu majority against the Tutsi-dominated army. But if anything, violence has increased since the new government was installed.

Amnesty accuses Burundi's army of massacring almost 100 civilians in Bujumbura Rurale province. It says some people were shot as they worked in their fields and others were bayoneted to death in their homes. Most of the victims were Hutu, the same ethnic group as the rebels.

The government has not responded to these accusations. Mr. Byaruhanga, the Amnesty researcher, says atrocities like this are common and the government usually justifies them by saying its soldiers were acting in self-defense.

He has said if Burundi's peace process is going to have a chance, the government and the rebels must stop abusing civilians. "We have a hope and indeed appeal to the new government to take immediate measures to prevent these human rights abuses, and [we] also call on the armed political groups to prevent their combatants from attacking the civilian population or recruiting children," he said.

Mr. Byaruhanga says France, Belgium, the United States and South Africa - all of which have expressed an interest in bringing about peace in Burundi - should take a more active role in the country. For starters, he says, they must make it clear that those who abduct children or shoot unarmed civilians will be brought to justice.