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Burundi's fragile peace

NAIROBI, Kenya (Reuters) -- One week after a new government was installed in Burundi, heralded as the bearer of ethnic reconciliation, escalating violence and a mounting death toll have shown how fragile prospects for peace remain.

The new authority, inaugurated on a wave of political optimism last Thursday, aims to share power equally between Hutus and Tutsis to end a brutal eight-year ethnic war that has claimed more than 200,000 lives, mostly civilians.

It is part of a three-year peace plan, mediated by former South African President Nelson Mandela, to transform Burundi's Tutsi-dominated administration into a Hutu-Tutsi powersharing government, ultimately leading the way to democratic elections.

But in the past seven days, violence has flared across the tiny central African country.

Ethnic Hutu rebels have killed scores of civilians, a brutal reminder that they are as likely to dictate Burundi's future as any government in Bujumbura.

"Of course there's a symbolic dimension to this," Francois Grignon of the Nairobi-based International Crisis Group said.

"The rebel leaders are inclined to say what's happening down there in Bujumbura is just another reshuffle...and the leadership of the army is also going to make a show that it is still there, that it has not been defeated."

Burundi's two main Hutu rebel groups -- the FDD and FNL -- have been fighting the Tutsi-dominated army since 1993, when Tutsi soldiers assassinated the country's first democratically elected president, Hutu Melchior Ndadaye.

Neither group was party to peace talks and they have refused to negotiate with the new government.

Regardless of political changes in Bujumbura, they say, real power remains with the Tutsi-led army.

Although a minority in Burundi, the Tutsi ethnic group has maintained a stranglehold on both government and army since independence from Belgium in 1962.

While Mandela's peace plan, signed in Arusha in August 2000, spells out the division of power within government, the pivotal question of army reform draws a blank.

The deal says the military should be divided 50-50 between Hutus and Tutsis, but it fails to stipulate who should hold which ranks. Hutus are worried that Tutsis will retain the lion's share of power.

At the same time, many Tutsis fear their power will be sapped by the inclusion of more Hutus in the army, especially if Hutu rebel fighters are also drafted in.

"(Reform of the army) has to be a very slow process and done in a very sensitive way," Burundi expert Jan van Eck said.

But as fighting rages on, time is something that Burundi can ill-afford to squander.

Army troops and rebels have clashed in the provinces of Bururi and Ruyigi, in the south and east of the country, and there have been reports of high civilian death tolls in the hills around Bujumbura.

"Very few (clashes) are reported. We are probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg," Van Eck said.

"The issue of a ceasefire, unless dealt with urgently, competently and immediately, is going to make it very difficult for the new government."

Rebellion fragmented

Divisions within the rebel forces are a further blow to prospects for a viable ceasefire.

"There is total confusion about the leadership of the rebellion, within the FDD especially," Grignon said.

"There are units who don't really know who to take their orders from."

The leader of the main FDD rebel group, Jean-Bosco Ndayikengurukiye, was reported to have been ousted from power a few weeks ago, but no clear successor has emerged and several FDD commanders continue to swear allegiance to Ndayikengurukiye.

The rebels say they are prepared to negotiate with the army, but unless they can present a united front, analysts say talks are unlikely to have much impact on the ground.

It is still not clear how the new government, which only had its first cabinet meeting on Wednesday, proposes to proceed with the seemingly Herculean task of trying to reunite a deeply divided country.

"If the government succeeds in asserting themselves as strong leaders and able to act with force and authority, then I would be optimistic," said Terence Nsanze, chairman of the ABASA party which holds the Finance Ministry.

"But at the current stage, I do not have the impression that there are strong political figures among the cabinet members who can impact upon events."


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