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Burundi Agrees to Move Tutsi Refugees to Safety - 2004-08-20


Following last week's massacre of at least 160 Congolese Tutsis at a refugee camp near Burundi's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Burundian government is speeding up efforts to help the United Nations set up more secure camps in the country's interior for some 20,000 remaining refugees.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says it is expecting the Burundian government to give approval Monday to a massive project to build two new refugee camps deep inside the country.

A UNHCR spokesperson in Geneva, Jennifer Clark, says the work could begin as early as next Tuesday.

"It does take some time to actually set up a camp," she said. "You have to put infrastructure into place. You have to do things like dig latrines, set up water systems, set up tents. So, that does take some time, but we are going to move as quickly as possible."

In May, more than 25,000 mostly-Tutsi civilians fled renewed ethnic fighting in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu, and crossed the border into Burundi. Most of them went no further than three transit camps, located less than a kilometer from the border. UNHCR officials say they believed the camps were too vulnerable to cross-border attacks, and for months, they had been pressing the government in Bujumbura for permission to build more permanent refugee camps further inland.

But Ms. Clark says talks became bogged down over several issues.

"Part of it has been the difficulties in identifying the sites. Part of it has been the refugees themselves, whether they wanted to move from the border, or stay closer to the border," she explained. "The authorities from the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) actually came and visited the transit centers along the border, and encouraged refugees there to return home."

UNHCR says it believes last Friday's deadly attack at one of the transit camps, called Gatumba, convinced the Burundian government that it needed to move quickly toward a solution. Burundian officials responsible for the resettlement were unavailable for comment.

On Wednesday, hundreds of Congolese refugees from Gatumba held an angry demonstration in the Burundian capital, Bujumbura, to protest the poor security at their camp.

A Burudian Hutu rebel group, the National Liberation Forces, has claimed sole responsibility for the massacre of Tutsi refugees. But cross-border tensions in the region rose sharply, after witnesses said that Congolese-based Rwandan Hutu extremists, who took part in the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, and Congolese militias were also involved in the attack.

Burundi's powerful army, made up mostly of minority Tutsis, called the massacre a planned genocide, and says that it will act, unless the Congolese government arrests the Hutu rebels and their allies.

The minority Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda has also threatened to intervene in Congo if the perpetrators are not brought to justice. The situation has created a tense three-way standoff, and is fueling fears that the region is on the brink of a new crisis.

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