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Break in Fighting Paves Way for Family Reunions in Burundi - 2003-07-29

After days of fighting between government and rebel forces in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, aid agencies report the city is returning to normal. Hundreds of children who were separated from their families during the fighting are now back home, and three members of parliament who were seized by rebels have been released.

Bujumbura was a battleground in early July. Fighting between government troops and a Hutu rebel group known as the National Liberation Forces displaced tens of thousands of civilians. The U.N. children's fund, UNICEF, estimates that close to 1,000 children were separated from their families.

In the weeks following the clash, UNICEF and three Burundi humanitarian agencies broadcast the names of the missing children over the radio and put up posters of their names in camps for the displaced and other public places.

UNICEF announced Monday that around 900 children have been returned to their families. A child protection officer with UNICEF, Felicite Nsabimana, said she is confident the other missing children will be found soon.

But Ms. Nsabimana said UNICEF and the humanitarian agencies still have a lot of work to do to help the children cope with the trauma they experienced. "They didn't sleep well. We thought that they have many, many things in their heads to think if they will meet again their parents," she said.

Ms. Nsabimana said UNICEF and the three humanitarian organizations are working on a campaign to prevent children from being separated from their families during future conflicts.

Meanwhile, three members of parliament who had been abducted last month by another Hutu-led rebel group, the Forces for the Defense of Democracy, or FDD, were set free Sunday. The members of parliament are: Pierre Barusasiyeko; Leonidas Ntibayazi; and Fabien Bankinyakamwe. A fourth MP, Veronique Nizigama, was released in early July.

Observers said the release of the hostages and the reunification of the children are among recent events that point to a calmer atmosphere in Bujumbura.

Nicholas McGowan is information officer at the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Burundi. He said the U.N. recently downgraded Bujumbura's security risk because the city has been calm for the last couple of weeks.

He said he attributes the change in part to a meeting held in Tanzania two weeks ago, where the government and FDD rebels reaffirmed their commitment to peace. "We would hope that with the summit that was held a couple of weekends ago now, that the rebel groups continue to come into the process and continue a course of dialogue rather than a course of arms and negotiating at the point of a rifle," Mr. McGowan said.

While the FDD rebels said they are committed to peace, the rebels of the National Liberation Forces still refuse to accept a peace deal brokered last October when a transitional government took power in Burundi.