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In the struggle for power in Burundi, the numerous contenders have aligned themselves in shifting groupings according to various interests-regional, economic, personal-and, most importantly, ethnic. Most Burundians define themselves as Hutu, by far the largest part of the population, or as Tutsi, a minority of some 10 to 15 percent who have ordinarily exercised political, military and economic power disproportionate to their numbers.3 The current government is headed by Major Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi officer who took power in a military coup in 1996. Although it includes some Hutu, it is dominated by Tutsi, as are the Burundian armed forces. Buyoya headed the government once before following an earlier coup, but ceded power to a democratically elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, in 1993. Ndadaye governed for only a few months before being murdered by Tutsi army officers, who also killed other leaders of his political party, the Front for Democracy in Burundi (Front pour la Démocratie au Burundi, FRODEBU). Hutu, in many cases organized by officials or political leaders, then slaughtered thousands of Tutsi civilians. Tutsi soldiers and police subsequently massacred thousands of Hutu, in some cases in communities where there had been no previous killings of Tutsi.4

From the time of the Ndadaye murder to the time when Buyoya took power in 1996, the two most important political parties, FRODEBU and the National Union for Progress (Union Nationale pour le Progrès, UPRONA), along with smaller partners attempted to govern in an uneasy coalition. They sometimes yielded to pressure from Tutsi extremist parties whose militia carried out "dead city" operations in which they forced businesses and offices to close and brought life in Bujumbura to a standstill. On the other side, increasingly militant Hutu took up arms in rebelmovements, three of which currently pose the major threat to the government. The FNL, important more for its military capacity than for the numbers of its adherents, is strongest around the capital; the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie, FDD), the largest of the rebel movements, challenges the government primarily in the south and east; the less important National Liberation Front (Front pour la Libération Nationale, FROLINA) operates largely in the east. Several of the political parties and armed opposition movements have split, including FRODEBU and FDD, further complicating negotiations for ending the war.

After Buyoya took power, his coup was sharply criticized by most international actors and governments of neighboring states imposed a boycott on Burundi. In 1998 Buyoya agreed to share power with the National Assembly and began negotiations for a peace settlement with opposing parties and some of the armed opposition groups. The negotiations dragged on for a year and a half with little progress but at the start of 2000 they showed fresh promise after Nelson Mandela assumed the role of facilitator. He insisted the negotiators confront the real issues, political control during the transition period, the ethnic composition of the army, and the need for justice for past abuses. He also invited into the process the two most important armed groups, previously absent from the talks. As Mandela pushed for a prompt conclusion to the negotiations, military activity increased in the east and in the south as well as around the capital as both the army and the armed groups sought to secure the strongest possible base for negotiations.

3 Other ethnic groups include the Twa, descendants of a hunting and gathering population, and Ganwa, descendants of previous kings of Burundi.

4 See Human Rights Watch, International Federation of Human Rights, Ligue des Droits de la Personne dans la Region des Grands Lacs, Organisation Mondiale Contre la Torture, Centre National pour la Cooperation au Développement, Nationaal Centrum Voir Ontwikkelingssame, Novib, Rapport Final de la Commission Internationale d'Enquête sur les Violations des Droits de l'Homme au Burundi depuis le 21 octobre 1993, July 5, 1994.

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