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U.N. to withdraw staff from capital of Burundi

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

BUJUMBURA, Burundi -- The United Nations decided Tuesday to withdraw its nonessential staff from Bujumbura after six days of fighting in Burundi's capital.

The fighting erupted in the capital when Hutu rebels launched an attack on southern neighborhoods with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, leaving scores of people dead.

There was a lull in the fighting Saturday after the Tutsi-dominated army appeared to have driven the insurgents from the city. But early Sunday the rebels attacked northern and northeastern neighborhoods, including areas where some U.N. staff lived. Late Monday, rebels fired seven rockets into a northeastern neighborhood, damaging two houses, but injuring no one.

Sunil Saigal, the U.N. resident coordinator in Burundi, said the decision to remove the staff was prompted by "the events of last week, especially Sunday morning."

"It's something nobody is happy to do ... one has to understand it's not something we do in panic," Saigal said.

About 100 international U.N. staff are in Bujumbura and it will be up to the heads of U.N. agencies to decide who leaves and who stays, Saigal said.

On Sunday, the U.S. State Department ordered the departure of nonessential staff from the American embassy in Burundi.

More than 200,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since the war broke out in October 1993. The conflict erupted after Tutsi paratroopers assassinated the country's first democratically elected president, a Hutu.

Despite being in the minority, Tutsis have effectively controlled the nation for all but a few months since independence in 1962.

A transitional government took office in November 2001 after Hutu and Tutsi political parties signed a power-sharing accord, but the rebels did not participate in that peace process and fighting continued.

The largest rebel faction, the Forces for the Defense of Democracy is also continuing to fight in many of Burundi's provinces, despite it signing a cease-fire in December.

South Africa has been leading regional efforts to end the war in Burundi and an African Union force currently deploying in Burundi is being led by troops from the country. The force is supposed to help implement the cease-fire agreements but does not have the mandate to intervene in the fighting.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said Tuesday that regional leaders will meet in neighboring Tanzania this week to consider sending a "more robust" peacekeeping force to Burundi.


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