The government of Rwanda said Friday that it would relocate refugees from Burundi to other countries, after accusations from U.S. diplomats that Rwanda was training rebels opposed to Burundi's government.
Rwanda's government said it would immediately begin working with "partners in the international community" to plan the orderly relocation of Burundian refugees to third countries.
The announcement took the U.N. refugee agency by surprise, and it issued a statement saying it was concerned by the move, which "seems to undermine the precedent of refugee protection Rwanda has set over a decade."
The UNHCR Rwanda office said U.N. officials met later Friday with Rwandan officials, who insisted the government would continue to protect refugees and would not forcibly expel them. UNHCR "urged the government to make such clarifications publicly as soon as possible" and to "address the many questions which are raised by this morning's statement."
Burundi has repeatedly accused Rwanda of backing rebels who want to overthrow the government in Bujumbura. Rwanda has strenuously denied the accusations.
Rwanda said Friday that it "readily shoulders its obligations to protect and care for refugees," but also noted that "the long-term presence of refugees so close to their country of origin carries considerable risks for all involved."
The statement followed accusations by the United States and the United Nations that Rwandan officials have been trying to influence the political opinions of Burundian refugees to build support for opponents of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza. Nkurunziza's announcement in April that he would run for re-election touched off the political violence that caused the refugees to flee.
On Wednesday, two senior U.S. diplomats accused Rwanda of "destabilizing activities" in neighboring Burundi, where political violence has left hundreds dead.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield spoke of her concerns to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She cited a number of reports from U.S. officials on the ground in Africa.
"We have raised these concerns with the Rwandan government and encouraged them to play a productive role and not to do anything that might further destabilize Burundi," Thomas-Greenfield told the senators.
Another top diplomat, the U.S. envoy for Africa's Great Lakes region, Tom Perriello, said there were credible reports of Rwandan officials recruiting Burundi refugees in Rwandan camps to fight for the Burundi opposition. Perriello said children were among the refugees being trained to fight.
A U.N. panel made the same accusation last week. Rwandan President Paul Kagame dismissed it as "childish."
Nkurunziza's successful campaign for a third term has inflamed the opposition. Nkurunziza says he was eligible to run for a third term because he was appointed, rather than elected, to his first term in office. But the opposition says a third term violates the two-term limit for the presidency outlined in the constitution.
Despite the opposition, Nkurunziza was re-elected and sworn in last August.
Political violence in Burundi has now killed more than 400 people and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing the country for their lives — many of them, to Rwanda.