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Burundi Rebels, Government Reach Peace Deal - 2003-10-08

The government of Burundi has made a comprehensive peace deal with the country's largest rebel group. Analysts are hailing the agreement, which was reached at peace talks in South Africa, as a breakthrough in the quest to end Burundi's long-running civil war, but they warn there is still much work to be done.

Burundian President Domitien Ndayezeye and the leader of the country's largest rebel group signed the deal in the early hours of the morning, after three days of grueling talks in Pretoria.

Rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza of the Forces for the Defense of Democracy, or FDD, said over the last 10 years, both sides have shown they are capable of tearing their country apart. Now, he says, they have to show the world they are capable of rebuilding it.

After signing the agreement, both men ordered their forces to immediately cease hostilities against each other.

The chief mediator in the Pretoria talks, South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma, welcomed the deal. "This is good news for the people of Burundi, who have been waiting to hear this decision taken by their leaders," he said. "I think it is also good news for the people of the Great Lakes region, who have been plagued by violence for a long time."

Here are the details of the agreement. On the military side, the FDD rebels will make up 40 percent of the Burundian army's general staff and officer corps, and they will demobilize all their fighters who are not integrated into the national army. They will also form 35 percent of the country's new police force.

On the political side, the FDD will get four ministerial posts, including a minister of state whom the president must consult on all key issues. The rebel group also gets the second vice president and deputy secretary-general posts in the national assembly, as well as 15 seats in the assembly.

The deal represents real compromise by both the government and the rebels, who had originally demanded twice as many seats in the national assembly, as well as the post of parliamentary speaker and vice president.

University of Pretoria political analyst Jan van Eck specializes in the Great Lakes region and has been closely involved in the Burundian peace process for years. He spoke to VOA by mobile phone from the airport in Nairobi, where he was getting ready to board a flight to Burundi.

Mr. van Eck calls the deal a long-awaited breakthrough, but he says the key is whether it will be fully implemented. "I think the Burundians will be cautious in getting overexcited and saying, 'OK, we'll give it a month or two and see to what extent this actually changes the situation on the ground, and whether both parties show a genuine commitment to what they signed.' So, yes, hope, but cautious hope."

Mr. van Eck says although the agreement is a breakthrough, it is still a deal with only one of Burundi's two main rebel groups. The other group, the Palipehutu-National Liberation Forces, is not even in talks toward a peace deal.

"Of course that is a shortcoming, that we still have one rebellion that is completely excluded from the process," he conceded. "But it is highly significant that this rebellion, which has been the largest rebellion all these years, that they have signed a comprehensive accord not only on military matters but also on their share of political power in the transitional government."

Mr. van Eck said he hopes the government and the mediators will now put just as much energy into getting the other rebel group into the peace process as they did in reaching a deal with the FDD. South African President Thabo Mbeki, who personally intervened in the Pretoria talks, told reporters there has been some progress toward bringing the other rebel group on board.