EU evacuates families and non-essential staff from Burundi

The airport at Bujumbura, capital of Burundi. [DaveProffer/Flickr]

The European Union is to evacuate the families of staff members as well as some non-essential employees from Burundi after a wave of political violence in the central African nation, officials said Friday (13 November).

“We have decided to evacuate temporarily the families and part of the non-essential staff but the (EU) delegation will continue functioning normally,” an EU official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“The decision has been taken on the basis of a new risk assessment of the situation in Burundi.”

Burundi descended into violence after President Pierre Nkurunziza launched a controversial bid to prolong his term in office in April. At least 240 people have been killed in Burundi and more than 200,000 have fled the tiny landlocked nation.

“We have reduced the number of staff to an essential level as the situation is clearly dangerous in Burundi, and so we are taking steps for our personnel and their families,” another official said.

The evacuees will leave the country “in the days to come,” the official added.

Belgium’s foreign ministry on Friday advised its citizens in Burundi to leave unless they have an essential reason for staying.

EU Ambassador Patrick Spirlet told Reuters that the “rising risk of violence” had prompted the EU mission in Bujumbura to reduce some staff and send family members away temporarily.

“The delegation will continue functioning normally,” he said, without saying how long it would operate with reduced staff.

Burundi’s 12-year civil war, which killed 300,000 people, pitted rebels of the Hutu majority against the Tutsi-led army. The same ethnic divide fuelled the genocide next door in Rwanda, in which 800,000 mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered.

President Nkurunziza declared that a court ruling allowed his bid for a third term, and went on to win a disputed election in July.

Burundi’s crisis has till now largely followed political lines, with a mix of ethnic groups in both camps. But experts say inflammatory language by some officials risks reviving ethnic rifts. The government denies using ethnically divisive language

On Thursday (12 November), EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini called on Burundi’s government and opposition to meet outside the strife-torn country in a bid to stop the succession of killings and massive displacement.

Speaking at the Valletta migration summit in Malta, Mogherini joined forces with United Nations and African Union to appeal for the peace talks, fearing what she called a “deep regional crisis”.

>>Read: Europe readying sanctions against top Burundi officials

“We agreed on the urgency to convene a meeting of the Burundian government and opposition representatives in Addis Ababa, or in Kampala under the chairmanship of (Uganda’s) President Museveni,” Mogherini said in a statement also signed by African Union chairman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and United Nations Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson.

“No effort can be spared to achieve an end to the violence and to foster a political solution.”

“Alarmed by the widening divisions, the threat for many more lives and a deep regional crisis, we pledged to work closely together and to mobilise all our means and instruments to prevent a further deterioration of the situation,” the officials added.

According to Amnesty International, there are daily reports of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests and torture.

On Monday (9 November), Sarah Jackson, Amnesty’s Deputy Director for East Africa, said: “Incendiary rhetoric from top officials is fuelling fears that the already tense situation in Burundi could spiral out of control, leading to mass killings.”

On Sunday (8 November), Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, also implored Burundi not to repeat the ethnic violence that his country endured 21 years ago.

Unrest erupted in Burundi end of April against a bid by president Pierre Nkurunziza to cling to power for a third term.

The president, a former rebel leader and born-again Christian, has been in power since 2005. Opposition figures and rights groups say his attempt to stay put goes against the constitution, as well as the peace deal that ended a civil war in 2006.

>>Read: Tensions grow as Burundi leader clings to power

The violence has plunged the nation into its worst crisis since the end of the civil war that pitted rebels from the majority Hutu ethnic group against minority Tutsis, who once led the army. The military is now a mixed force.

The police crackdown on protests has provoked Western rebukes of a nation which relies on aid to meet half its budget. The European Union and Belgium individually halted aid earmarked for supporting elections, saying that the conditions were not right for a fair vote.

European states are the biggest contributors to the budget, while the United States provides support to the army.

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