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Worsening conflict prompts Burundians to seek haven in Tanzania, UN agency reports

Worsening conflict prompts Burundians to seek haven in Tanzania, UN agency reports

Nearly 1,200 fearful Burundian refugees have fled their tiny central African nation for Tanzania since early September, sparking fears that the intensifying conflict between Burundian military and rebel forces could drive out larger numbers, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported today.

Painting a harrowing picture of routine house burning, military reprisals and forced conscription, many of the latest arrivals - more than 500 over the last week alone - have reported that there are even larger numbers of people waiting around the villages close to the border for an opportunity to cross, a UNHCR spokesman said in Geneva.

"Some of them are out in the open with no shelter on the Burundi side of the border," spokesman Kris Janowski said. "UNHCR staff at the border confirmed seeing thick smoke billowing in the distance, across the Burundi border."

Since the beginning of the year, more than 3,400 Burundian refugees have arrived in Tanzania - more than 30 per cent of them during the first half of September. A small number of arrivals said they were former refugees who had repatriated last year or early this year to Burundi.

Meanwhile, the number of refugees returning to Burundi has decreased, according to Mr. Janowski. Some 600 refugees are going back to Burundi each week with assistance from UNHCR, compared with up to 1,500 per week a few months ago. By early September, some 42,650 Burundian refugees had returned home - 25,100 of them with UNHCR transport. More than 18,000 others had gone back on their own. The agency continues to arrange transport twice a week from camps in Tanzania to the relatively safe northern Burundi provinces of Muyinga and Ngozi.

The drop in return figures from Tanzania has been attributed to the upsurge in conflict between the military and rebels in Burundi. The recent outbreak of meningitis in Burundi may also have contributed to the drop in numbers, the spokesman said.