, Burundi, Jan 10 – Captured rebels in Burundi stand sullenly against a wall under the guard of government troops: survivors of ferocious battles as fears mount of growing violence ahead of elections.
But who exactly the group are is not clear, and the mystery fighters raise multiple questions and concerns ahead of elections due in May and June.
The army say documents they seized last week showed the insurgents had planned a major offensive to destabilise the country, still traumatised by 13-years of civil war.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, in power since 2005, is expected to run for a third term in office in the small nation in Africa’s Great Lakes region.
The rebels themselves refused to talk when an AFP reporter met them this week as the army paraded them at the end of a five-day battle, some dressed in T-shirts and mismatched clothes, others with bandaged wounds following the fighting.
“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” read the T-shirt of one rebel, standing under the guard of the army, who also displayed a long line of weapons seized, including heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades.
The rebels, who crossed into the small nation from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, were badly routed by Burundi’s army in Cibitoke district, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the capital Bujumbura.
The army claimed to have killed around 100 of the fighters.
Officially, Bujumbura blames a string of recent attacks on “bandits” who they say have no political agenda. Observers say the offensive was led by opposition forces — even if it is difficult to say who exactly.
The Burundian army says the rebels were stopped as they crossed from lawless regions of eastern DR Congo to the thick forests of Kibira.
The jungles have often served as a launchpad for rebel attacks during the 1993-2006 civil war, especially for then ethnic Hutu insurgents — now members of the CNDD-FDD ruling party — against Tutsi rivals.
From the forests, the army said the rebels had planned to recruit and launch attacks across the country, although almost two weeks since the fighting began, the army still claims not to know who exactly the rebels are.
– ‘Path of violence’ –
Some initially suggested the force included both Hutu and Tutsi, something previously unheard of in a country deeply scarred since independence by ethnic massacres.
The finger of blame then swung to Alexis Sinduhije, the exiled president of the opposition Movement for Solidarity and Development (MSD) who is viewed as one of the only people who can bring Hutu and Tutsi together.
But respected human rights activist Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa from the Aprodeh organisation said the rumour of a mixed Hutu-Tutsi force was false, saying there were only very few Tutsi in the group.
“I did some investigations, and I can assure that this group are almost exclusively Hutus,” Mbonimpa told AFP.
The rebel attack certainly rattled the government in Bujumbura, which sent some its toughest troops to quash the fighters.
Military sources said the battle-hardened soldiers — trained by foreign forces after fighting with the African Union force in Somalia — were immediately deployed.
“It may be that some opposition leaders have orchestrated the attack, as some have been forced into exile and will not participate in elections,” said a political analyst in Burundi, who asked not to be named due the sensitivity of the subject.
“For others… the political space is completely blocked, they have they lost their parties, and may be tempted by the path of violence.”
Thierry Vircoulon from the International Crisis Group says there is little reason to be optimistic given the progress of election preparations so far.
But there is still hope that things may pass off peacefully, if Nkurunziza and his CNDD-FDD party seek to engage the opposition.
Things could pass calmly, with current opposition leaders currently outside parliament winning seats to create a “parliamentary opposition consolidating democracy in Burundi.”
But he is also fearful of the consequences should the opposition be pushed out.
“If the CNDD-FDD keeps the doors closed, there will not be many other alternatives than armed struggle,” he added.