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UN mission in Burundi starts disarming former fighters

UN mission in Burundi starts disarming former fighters

Voluntary disarmament process at ONUB-run centre
Over 200 former fighters in Burundi turned in their weapons at a United Nations-run centre in the Central African country, which today officially began the disarmament process considered crucial to countering instability caused by decades of ethnic war there.

"This is a historic moment," Isabelle Abric, a spokeswoman for the UN Mission in Burundi (ONUB), told the UN News Service. "It is extremely important in view of the upcoming elections."

Burundians have been registering to go to the polls on 22 December to participate in a referendum on the country's Constitution. That document will determine the upcoming elections, slated to take place between February and April of next year.

A first batch of 216 former fighters - from both armed groups and the Burundian national army - gave up their weapons at a newly opened centre in Muramvya - the first of three which will operate in Burundi. The others, in Gitega and Randa, are expected to open in the coming days.

UN officials anticipate that hundreds of child soldiers will be among those voluntarily disarming at the Gitega site in the next week or so.

At a ceremony today at Muramvya, some 200 weapons were burned. ONUB chief Carolyn McAskie attributed the successful launch of the disarmament effort to the Burundians themselves, and emphasized that the UN is there to support the peace process.

The centres will serve to foster disarmament as part of a four-part process that also includes demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration.

Ms. Abric joined the ONUB chief in hailing the successful start of the process. "If it keeps going like this it will be great," she said.

Meanwhile, the United Nations emergency feeding agency today started providing food to the demobilized ex-combatants.

"Providing food to ex-combatants in the demobilization centres will enable them to participate actively in the orientation programme before they go back to their communities of origin," World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director Zlatan Milisic said.

Under the initiative, which will expand in coming years to include all 55,000 former combatants identified by the National Programme for Demobilization, Reinsertion and Reintegration, WFP gives food to each participant during a mandatory 10-day preparation for reintegration into civilian life.

"The total demobilization of all former fighters who will not be integrated in the national army and police is a critical step in the peace process and WFP food assistance will continue to be provided until the demobilization phase is completed," Mr. Milisic said.

Yesterday the Security Council renewed for another six months the mandate of ONUB, set up in May to help cement a multi-party, power-sharing government and pave the way to peace in the small nation of some 6 million people torn asunder by ethnic conflicts between Hutus and Tutsis.