African Union backs away from imposing peacekeepers on Burundi

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The decision came after a close-door session at the AU where African leaders are meeting for a two-day summit. (Net photo)

The African Union will send a team to Burundi to try to convince the government to accept a peacekeeping force that it had rejected, backing away from an earlier plan to send them with or without consent, a top AU official said.

The AU’s Peace and Security Council announced plans to deploy a 5,000-strong force in December, saying it would, if necessary, invoke an article of the AU’s charter that allowed it to intervene whether or not the government agreed.

After President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose bid for a third term sparked the crisis, refused to accept the force, some AU members appear to have wavered. Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, said some states would only act with Burundi’s consent.

“We want dialogue with the government of Burundi,” Smail Chergui, the AU’s Commissioner for Peace and Security, told reporters after an AU summit on Sunday.

He said African leaders had “decided to send a high-level delegation to that country so that they hold dialogue with the government on ... the deployment of the force.”

It highlights sensitivities among some African leaders, who experts say fear that sending troops against a government’s will could set a precedent that be turned on them in future.

The delay will worry Western powers, who fear Burundi will fall back into ethnic conflict without intervention. U.N. rights officials have said Burundi needs a beefed up international presence to halt the slide into fighting.

Violence in the nine-month-old crisis has already killed more than 400 people, in a country that emerged from an ethnically charged civil war in 2005.

U.N. assistant secretary general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, told Reuters on Saturday that the African Union, if it did not send peacekeepers, should at least boost the number of human rights monitors it has there or send some police.

Asked if more monitors would go, Chergui told Reuters: “That question is too early. We are sending a high-level delegation so we are hoping that we will achieve an agreement with the government on everything.”

Diplomats at the summit said South Africa and Tanzania, two main brokers of the peace deal that brought Nkurunziza to power in 2005, were among those opposed to sending an unwanted force.

“The longer this situation continues, the more people will be killed and affected,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“We cannot wait any longer, that is why it is a matter of urgency, that I am urging African leaders to act in one voice,” he said in Addis Ababa, adding that Burundi’s government should “listen very carefully and engage in inclusive dialogue”.