UN backs Burundi force as Africa leaders debate troops

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Troubled Burundi tops agenda as African leaders meet

Addis Ababa (AFP) - UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned African leaders Saturday of the need for action in troubled Burundi at a summit aiming to end armed crises across the continent.

African Union leaders face an unprecedented vote on deploying a 5,000-strong peacekeeping force despite Burundi's vehement opposition, but Ban was clear troops were needed to stem the violence.

"Leaders who stand by while civilians are slaughtered in their name must be held responsible," Ban said, insisting that the Burundi crisis required the "most serious and urgent commitment".

He said the UN backed the AU's proposal "to deploy human rights observers and to establish a prevention and protection mission" in Burundi.

"I applaud you for taking collective responsibility and acting decisively," he added.

Talks at the AU Peace and Security Council, attended by presidents and foreign ministers from across the 54-member bloc, stretched late into Friday night in an attempt to narrow positions before the formal summit began on Saturday.

AU commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma opened the summit by commemorating AU peacekeepers killed in "efforts to silence the guns" as debate raged over whether to send a new force to Burundi.

Talks on the possible peacekeeping deployment are being held behind closed doors and it is unclear when a vote may be taken.

While the official theme of the African Union (AU) meeting is human rights, leaders are again dealing with a string of crises across the continent during two days of talks at the organisation's headquarters in the Ethiopian capital.

- 'Situation under control' -

Ban also stressed the need for action to end the violence in South Sudan.

"Leaders in South Sudan have again failed to meet a deadline to form a transitional government," Ban said. "Instead of enjoying the fruits of independence, their people have endured more than two years of unimaginable suffering."

"Leaders must protect their people, not themselves," he said.

Neither South Sudan's President Salva Kiir nor Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza are attending the summit.

Burundi has consistently opposed the idea of the proposed peacekeeping mission, saying the deployment of troops without its express permission would be tantamount to an "invasion force".

Asked whether Bujumbura had the support of other nations opposed to the plan, Burundian Foreign Minister Alain Nyamitwe insisted it did.

"Yes, very strong (support), you will see," he said on Friday.

Burundi has been in crisis since April 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a controversial third term, sparking street protests, a failed coup, regular killings and a nascent rebellion.

He went on to win the election in July, but since then, clashes between loyalists and the opposition have turned increasingly violent, with hundreds killed and at least 230,000 fleeing the country.

"The deployment of this force is not justified," Nyamitwe said.

"We believe that the situation in the country is under control."

- Ending Africa's tragedies -

With Nkurunziza unmoved by appeals from the AU and the UN, there have been moves to water down the proposed military force to that of an observer mission.

"It is not only Burundi that is resisting this idea... most interveners in a country are not welcomed," Gambian President Yahya Jammeh said.

Jammeh said he would not support a military deployment "without the consent of Burundi".

A two-thirds majority will be required before deploying the force, known as the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU). It remains unclear who would contribute troops to the force.

"In addition to Burundi's lobbying efforts, many heads of states will be reluctant to set a precedent of AU troop deployment in a country that clearly rejects it," said Yolande Bouka, of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) think tank.

Also on Saturday, Chad's President Idriss Deby took over as AU chairman, replacing Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe in the one-year ceremonial post.

Deby told fellow presidents that conflicts across the continent had to end.

"Everything that we are doing now will be in vain and without purpose if we allow Africa to go through these perpetual crises: South Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Burundi, the Sahel, the Lake Chad basin," he said.

"Through diplomacy or by force... we must put an end to these tragedies of our time."