Burundi president, rebel chief agree to truce

By Helen Nyambura

Dar es Salaam - Burundi's president signed a truce on Sunday with the only Hutu rebels still fighting his government, boosting efforts to end the tiny African country's decade-long civil war, witnesses said.

President Domitien Ndayizeye and Agathon Rwasa, leader of the extremist Hutu Forces for National Liberation (FNL), signed the cessation of hostilities pact after their first face-to-face talks in the Tanzanian commercial capital of Dar es Salaam.

"We are determined to seek peace," said Rwasa, whose group is regarded as a terrorist organisation by regional leaders.

"If during the process any problem occurs we will discuss it thoroughly and if consensus fails we will ask for mediation."

"Since we have accepted a cessation of hostilities we shall do our best to keep the peace in Burundi."

Burundi, a nation of seven million, is slowly emerging from 12 years of war pitting majority Hutus against the politically dominant Tutsi minority. About 300 000 people have been killed.

A recent resumption of contacts between the government and the FNL has produced the best hope in years among diplomats that Burundi can finally lift one of its last big barriers to peace.

The government broke off all contact with the FNL after the rebels said they were responsible for the massacre of more than 160 Congolese Tutsi refugees at a refugee camp in west Burundi.

Since the massacre, regional countries that shepherded Burundi's peace process have dubbed the FNL a terrorist organisation, a label they have said they will lift formally when the FNL shows itself to be committed to peace talks.

Burundian Foreign Minister Therence Sinunguruza said the two parties would set up technical teams in less than one month to decide how to bring about a permanent ceasefire, and would start talks "very soon" on bringing the FNL into the peace process.

Ndayizeye, who shook hands with Rwasa after signing the pact in front of journalists, said: "The first priority is a cessation of hostilities then we shall pursue a ceasefire."

Burundi held its first democratic poll in 12 years on February 28, a referendum that saw a new constitution approved.

The FNL honoured an accord not to disrupt the February polls but has since been blamed for small attacks and army troops have hunted the rebels in their strongholds near the capital.

Polls to be held by August 19 are meant to create a government that guarantees Hutu majority rule and Tutsi representation.

Peace hopes rose in January 2004 when Ndayizeye met FNL officials - excluding Rwasa - in Amsterdam and agreed on the need to stop violence and help create a climate for peace.

But fighting resumed within days.

The conflict has been marked by atrocities by all sides.

The FNL is the more openly ethnic of the main Hutu groups, arguing that since both Hutus and Tutsi committed atrocities against each other, they should sit down together for talks and recognise each other's responsibility in the massacres.

The FNL, which has some 3,000 fighters mainly in Bujumbura Rurale district around the capital Bujumbura, says it wants a kind of contract of forgiveness between the two ethnic groups.

The larger Hutu Forces for the Defence of Democracy group, which agreed to join the transitional government in 2003, emphasises the need for democracy rather than ethnic rights.

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