BURUNDI, May 30 – The top leader of Burundi’s last active rebel group, Agathon Rwasa, returned from exile Friday, four days after his signed a truce with the government, raising hopes of an end to a 15-year civil war.
The National Liberation Forces (FNL) chief flew into Bujumbura on a plane that also carried South African Security Minister Charles Nqakula, the chief mediator in recent efforts to bring peace to Burundi.
Burundian government officials were on the tarmac to welcome Rwasa while large crowds also lined the road between the airport and the city centre to greet him.
Rwasa’s return from Tanzania marks a new step in moves to definitively end the civil war that has plagued the impoverished central African nation since 1993, leaving at least 300,000 people dead.
On May 26, the FNL and the government signed an unconditional and immediate ceasefire, bringing to an end the latest spate of deadly fighting between the two sides.
A cessation of hostilities had already been agreed upon in 2006, but the implementation of the deal never got off the ground, prompting peace talks to break down.
FNL fighters had launched a major attack in and around the capital Bujumbura on April 17, sparking a fierce retaliation by the army.
The clashes were the most serious in years and left more than 100 people dead and thousands displaced, raising fears that the country could plunge back into chaos.
The fresh violence accelerated efforts to rekindle a peace process and a group of FNL negotiators who had quit talks last years returned to Burundi earlier this month.
Rwasa was born in 1964 and joined the FNL — the country’s first Hutu rebel group — 20 years ago and took over its leadership in 2000.
He has shuttled between Burundi and Tanzania since 2005 and is not believed to have returned to Bujumbura since 1988.
When the ceasefire was signed earlier this week, both sides pledged the war was finally over but diplomats warned a lot of ground had yet to be covered.
New York-based Human Rights Watch on Friday released a statement calling on the police and judicial officials to release what the watchdog said were scores of people detained on suspicion of links to the FNL.
"Some people have been in detention for weeks, even though Burundian law clearly prohibits holding anyone without charge for more than seven days," said Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to HRW’s Africa division.