Burundi launches inquiry into reports of rebel executions

Esdras Ndikumana
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Burundian army men present on January 6, 2015 in Cibitoke, rebels they captured following five days of fighting in the north-western part of the country

Burundian army men present on January 6, 2015 in Cibitoke, rebels they captured following five days of fighting in the north-western part of the country (AFP Photo/Esdras Ndikumana)

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Burundi on Friday launched a probe into reports that security forces last month executed at least 47 rebels who had surrendered, amid warnings of violence ahead of upcoming presidential elections.

But authorities in Bujumbura have already rejected a report by international monitor Human Rights Watch (HRW) -- which said it had interviewed 32 witnesses to the killings in the small central African country -- and Burundian activists said they were doubtful any inquiry would be effective.

"I have set up a judicial commission of inquiry... to shed light on the allegations of extrajudicial executions," Attorney General Valentin Bagorikunda said, giving officers a month to investigate.

HRW said witnesses described soldiers and police ordering men to lie face down in the dirt, or lining them up along a cliff, before opening fire.

Members of the ruling party's youth wing known as the Imbonerakure also took part, beating to death those prisoners who were not shot, throwing others off a cliff and helping to hide bodies in mass graves, HRW said.

The investigation will be led by deputy attorney general Adolphe Manirakiza, who headed a previous inquiry into a United Nations report, which said 61 people were killed in extrajudicial executions in 2011.

That inquiry concluded the reports were false.

- 'Broader pattern' of killings -

Rights activist Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, president of Burundi’s influential campaign group Aprodeh -- one of the first organisations to report and condemn the killings -- said that while he welcomed the commission, he was sceptical it would do its job properly.

"It is no use, it is a commission set up just to deceive national and international opinion," he said.

The rebels at the centre of the latest alleged atrocities crossed into Burundi in late December from neighbouring eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

They went on to fight a five-day battle with government troops in the Cibitoke region, around 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the capital Bujumbura.

The army said troops had killed around 100 rebels in the battle and accused them of planning to launch a major offensive to destabilise Burundi ahead of parliamentary and presidential polls due in May and June.

HRW's Africa chief Daniel Bekele called the killings "one of the largest incidents of this kind" in recent years, charging that the involvement of government forces as well as Imbonerakure indicated "coordination and state responsibility".

A BBC report last month filmed what locals said was a place where bodies had been buried, showing discarded clothes and spent bullet casings around a pile of freshly dug earth.

HRW said the killings were "part of a broader pattern" of extrajudicial executions going back several years.

Burundi, a landlocked nation in central Africa's Great Lakes region, emerged in 2006 from a brutal 13-year civil war.

Opposition politicians and critics say the government is doing all it can to sideline political challengers ahead of the elections, including arrests, harassment and a clampdown on free speech.