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Intensified conflict in Burundi could send more refugees fleeing, UN agency warns

Intensified conflict in Burundi could send more refugees fleeing, UN agency warns

More than 1,000 fearful refugees have fled Burundi over the last two weeks, sparking fears that the intensifying conflict between the country's military and rebel forces could drive out larger numbers, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported today.

Since the beginning of the year, over 3,400 Burundian refugees have arrived in Tanzania - more than 30 per cent of them during the first half this month, the agency said.

"While we are beginning to see an upward trend in the number of arrivals from Burundi, the numbers are still much lower compared to the first eight or nine months of last year," said Ivana Unluova, UNHCR's Public Information Officer in Tanzania. In 2001, over 25,000 Burundian refugees fled to Tanzania.

On Sunday, a group of arrivals, among them old women and children, said they had fled after their homes had been set on fire. UNHCR staff at the border confirmed seeing, through binoculars, thick smoke billowing in the distance across the Burundi border.

The recent arrivals are also reporting reprisals by the Burundi military on villagers for allegedly supporting the rebels, according to UNHCR. There are also reports of forced conscription into the military and the burning of homes belonging to those who refuse to cooperate.

Negotiations on a cease-fire agreement between the transitional Government in Burundi and armed opposition movements are set to open in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam, on Thursday. The negotiations are central to the implementation of the Arusha Peace Agreement signed in August 2000.

UNHCR estimates that Tanzania is assisting some 350,000 Burundian refugees in camps, while nearly half a million others are living on their own in the country.