ADDIS ABABA, Dec 18 – The African Union has agreed to send troops to stop violence in Burundi, a senior official said Friday, after talks in which the 54-member bloc warned it would not allow “another genocide”.
The move comes as international alarm grows over spiralling violence in the tiny, landlocked nation which has been mired in bloodshed since April, sparking concern it was sliding towards civil war.
The AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) “took a decision yesterday to send troops to protect civilians,” senior AU official Bonaventure Cakpo Guebegde told AFP.
“These troops will be under the banner of the East African Standby Force (EASF).”
No decision has been made on the potential size of any force, which would require the agreement of Burundi, or a vote by AU presidents before any deployment is approved.
Earlier this week UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was dispatching an envoy for urgent talks to end the crisis, warning that the country was “on the brink of a civil war that risks engulfing the entire region.”
And on Thursday, the UN’s top rights body agreed it would send a team of independent experts to Burundi to probe widespread abuses there.
Burundi descended into bloodshed in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a controversial third term, which he went on to win in July.
Nkurunziza is an ex-rebel and born-again Christian who believes he has divine backing to rule.
– ‘Killings must stop’ –
Earlier this month Ban said that deploying UN peacekeepers was an option to quell the violence but recommended that a UN team be first sent to help bolster dialogue.
Burundi has so far dismissed proposals for any peacekeeping force.
“We have two options: we send troops with Burundi government consent, or we wait for African Union heads of states’ consent, which means that two-thirds at least should agree,” the AU’s Guebegde said.
He said the number of troops to send had “not been fully determined yet” and could not comment on whether Bujumbura had reacted to the proposal.
“Our favourite option is to reach an agreement with Burundian government,” he said.
AU security council chief Smail Chergui said there was “a very clear message” from Thursday’s meeting: “The killings in Burundi must stop immediately.”
At the talks, ministers were briefed on “contingency planning” on the military capabilities of its regional EASF force without giving further details.
The 10-nation EASF includes Burundi itself, and is one of five AU regional bodies with a mandate to boost “peace and security”. It has never deployed and is currently a force in principle only.
“Africa will not allow another genocide to take place on its soil,” the PSC said on Twitter during Thursday’s meeting.
– Arbitrary killings, torture –
AU rights investigators this week returned from a fact-finding mission to Burundi expressing “great concern” after witnessing some of the heaviest fighting in the troubled country for months.
The AU team said they had reports of “arbitrary killings and targeted assassinations” as well as arrests, detentions and torture. Their concerns have been widely echoed.
At a special session in Geneva on Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously decided to urgently send investigators to the central African country to investigate widespread rights abuses.
UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the country of around 11 million, which has seen more than 220,000 flee the violence, was “on the very cusp of civil war”.
The upsurge in violence has raised fears of a return to civil war, a decade after the end of a 1993-2006 conflict between rebels from the Hutu majority and an army dominated by minority Tutsis, which left 300,000 people dead.