United Nations agencies today stepped up operations in Burundi after last week's apparently ethnic massacre of more than 150 Congolese, reinforcing helicopter patrols along the border, increasing security in refugee camps and accelerating the transfer of survivors to safer sites far from the frontier area.
But the UN Operation in Burundi (ONUB), set up only two months ago, said that until additional peacekeeping forces arrived, staffing constraints would prevent a more robust presence throughout the small Central African country.
Peacekeepers from UN missions in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have heightened security precautions on either side of the border and troops have been deployed at refugee transit centres in Burundi.
The Head of the Human Rights Unit at the UN Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC), Roberto Ricci, has gone to Burundi to assist the Head of ONUB's Human Rights Unit, Dimiter Chalev, to immediately launch a fact-finding mission in light of the possible need to set up an international commission of inquiry.
The deputy director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Africa Bureau, Zobida Hassim-Ashagrie, arrived in Bujumbura, Burundi's capital, today to discuss with the Government arrangements for the immediate transfer of survivors to a new camp at Giharo, 120 kilometres to the south-east and far away from the Gatumba transit camp where Friday night's slaughter occurred.
She noted that the agency had been urging Burundi to provide a secure site well away from the volatile border ever since 20,000 mostly Banyamulenge (ethnic Tutsi) refugees began flooding in from the DRC in June, when disgruntled commanders protesting alleged mistreatment of the Banyamulenge rebelled. Security has been increased in the two other transit centres at Karurama and Rugombo.
Burundi's ethnic Hutu rebel Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL), the only group which has not joined the country's peace process, claimed responsibility for the massacre, but Ms. Pagonis said that although it was obviously carried out by armed elements in Burundi and the DRC it was not yet possible to pinpoint the blame.
Gatumba, 15 kilometres outside Bujumbura near the DRC border town of Uvira, sheltered 860 Banyamulenge before the massacre in which corpses were mutilated and decapitated, others burned beyond recognition, and mothers were killed while trying to shield their children. Seven more bodies have been found, raising the death toll to 158, mostly women and children, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is taking measures to feed the survivors of the massacre since stocks of emergency wheat were torched along with the rest of Gatumba camp. The agency will distribute high-energy biscuits while planning other steps.
ONUB was established in June to foster the peace process in Burundi after a decade of deadly warfare along Hutu-Tutsi ethnic lines, while in the DRC, MONUC was set up nearly five years ago after a ceasefire agreement among many of the vast nation's warring factions. It was later reinforced in the face of continued fighting in the eastern regions near the borders with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.