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UNICEF Urges Cease-Fire in Burundi - 2003-08-04

The United Nations' childrens agency, UNICEF, is launching a week-long health campaign for women and children in Burundi, and is calling on warring groups in the country to declare a cease-fire so the effort can proceed. The move comes as peace talks are set to resume on Tuesday.

Health workers from UNICEF set up clinics throughout Burundi on Monday and hope to begin receiving patients on Tuesday. The goals of the program include distributing de-worming tablets to two million children, administering vitamin A to one million children, and immunizing as many of them as possible against measles, polio and other diseases. The health workers also hope to give iron tablets to 150,000 pregnant women.

Last week, UNICEF asked the Burundi government and rebel forces to observe a cease-fire to facilitate the health care program. The agency has not received any formal response.

But at UNICEF's Burundi office, spokeswoman Sara Johansson said the agency is confident the warring parties will honor the request, as they did during a similar health care campaign last year. At that time, healthcare workers were able to travel to 90 percent of the country without being attacked.

Ms. Johansson said UNICEF wants the warring factions to help ease the suffering of the people most affected by the fighting. "The war affects the health of women and children, one, because sometimes they don't have access to the services that are there, and also by the fact that a big part of the social structure has been destroyed," he said.

According to UNICEF, 23 percent of children in Burundi die before their fifth birthday, and nearly one percent of mothers die in childbirth.

Recently, there has been much discussion about renewing Burundi's peace process. U.N. officials confirmed on Monday that talks will resume on Tuesday in Tanzania between Burundi government officials and the main rebel group, the Forces for the Defense of Democracy. The goal is to put a cease-fire into place that was agreed to last December, and to begin the process of integrating the rebels into the army and the new transitional government.

But another key rebel group is not involved in the talks. The National Liberation Forces launched a series of attacks last month in the capital, Bujumbura, and has refused to accept the peace deal.