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Burundi Rebels Meet Officials for Peace Talks


Burundian rebels met for the first time Monday with government officials in Tanzania for talks aimed at bringing an end to Burundi's nine-year civil war. It has been a major task just getting the two sides to the same table.

Over the last month, mediators have tried twice and failed to get the warring parties to attend the negotiations.

At the opening ceremony, Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa urged a suspension of hostilities during the talks. He said that would be, in his words, "a sign of goodwill and an illustration of a genuine commitment to the peace process."

Whether or not President Mkapa's wish is granted, simply getting the rebels to the negotiating table is an achievement in itself.

It is four years since the Burundi peace process began, aimed at ending a nine-year war that has killed some 200,000 people. The ethnic Hutu majority rebels who are fighting Burundi's Tutsi-dominated army have, until now, consistently refused to take part in peace negotiations.

When a transitional power-sharing government was installed in Burundi last year, the two main rebel groups stepped up their attacks.

These peace talks bring together government officials with only one faction of the two main rebel groups, the Forces for the Defense of Democracy. The second rebel group, the National Liberation Front, is to join the talks later.

The rebels and the government remain far apart on key issues. The rebels want equal representation in the army to minimize the risk of a coup when a Hutu government comes to power in nine months time, as part of the transition process. This is something that the Tutsi minority, which has always dominated the army and the government, has refused in the past.

It is also uncertain whether those talking peace in Tanzania have control over the soldiers on the ground in Burundi. Both rebel groups have had internal problems in recent months, and their leadership is unclear.

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