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Officials: Rwanda Refugees Recruited to Fight Burundi

A group of Burundian refugee children sit on a pile of wood, at the Gashora refugee camp in the Bugesera district of Rwanda, April 21, 2015. Officials in Burundi say refugees in neighboring Rwanda are being recruited to fight against the Burundian government.

Officials in Burundi say refugees in neighboring Rwanda are being recruited to fight against the Burundian government -- and they accuse Rwanda of aiding the rebels. The allegation heightens regional tensions as political violence in Burundi escalates.

Burundian presidential adviser Willy Nyamitwe told VOA his government has proof that Burundian refugees have been recruited into armed groups -- and he was quick to name the suspected culprit.

“We have evidence that people are being trained in Rwanda. Some persons who came to attack Burundi last July, that have been caught by the army, they revealed that they have been trained in Rwanda. And all the plotters, the coup plotters, those who attempted the coup last May, when they run away, they went in Rwanda. So we do believe that people are being trained in Rwanda, as well as weapons that are coming from Rwanda,” he said.

Nyamitwe said Burundi’s government wasn’t ready to reveal what steps they may take next.

Rwandan officials could not be reached despite repeated attempts seeking comment. But they have previously denied such allegations.

The neighboring nations are culturally and ethnically similar, but tensions between the two leaders are nothing new. Rwandan President Paul Kagame was quick to condemn Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid to remain in power this year.

Burundi’s allegations come in response to a new report from advocacy group Refugees International, which says non-state armed groups in Rwanda are systematically recruiting desperate Burundians in Rwandan refugee camps.

Michael Boyce, one of the report’s authors, said researchers spoke to 80 refugees who said they had been recruited or trained by militant groups.

Under international law, refugee camps must be exclusively civilian in nature -- no military presence, recruitment or activities are allowed.

Boyce was quick to note that researchers did not find an ethnic angle to the recruitment. Researchers were also careful to avoid assigning blame but did ask Rwandan authorities to step up.

“These concerns about recruitment have been raised for months now, not simply by Burundi, but also by the media, but international officials at a very senior level -- and yet, up until now, the recruitment continues. So we’re asking Rwanda to address this seriously, to allow humanitarian workers including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, to engage with this problem, to protect refugees as they’re mandated to do. Because this problem doesn’t seem to be going away, whatever efforts Rwanda may have taken to address it so far,” said Boyce.

Burundi has suffered unrest since April, when Nkurunziza announced his intention to seek a third term in office -- a move critics say violated the constitution.

But Nkurunziza weathered a May coup attempt and won a disputed election in July, and the strife has continued, peaking this past weekend when 87 people were killed after attackers stormed army installations in the capital.

The United Nations refugee agency says more than 200,000 Burundians have fled into neighboring countries since the crisis began.