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Burundi detains dozens of soldiers who refused deployment in fight against M23 rebels in Congo

Burundi detains dozens of soldiers who refused deployment in fight against M23 rebels in Congo
Soldiers from two different units argue after a special unit dispersed a group   -  
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Jerome Delay/AP


Dozens of Burundian troops have been detained for refusing to be deployed to eastern Congo in the fight against the M23 rebel group as it advances toward a major border city, according to army officers, prison officials and other witnesses.

The dissenting soldiers were being held in at least four prisons across the tiny central African country, they told The Associated Press.

Clashes between M23, which the U.S. says is backed by Rwanda, and Congolese troops have intensified in recent weeks with the rebels threatening the Congo city of Goma on the Rwanda border.

Burundian President Évariste Ndayishimiye, in a public broadcast on Dec. 29, acknowledged the presence of Burundian troops in eastern Congo under the terms of a defense pact with Congolese authorities.

"If you do not help your neighbor put out the fire when his house is burning, tomorrow, if it is your turn, he will not come to help you," he said. "If Burundi is going to help (Congo), it is defending itself."

He said in that address that it was "normal for Burundian soldiers to be killed on Congolese territory."

Tensions have been rising in Africa's Great Lakes region as Rwanda, Burundi and Congo trade accusations over support for violent rebel groups operating in the lawless areas of eastern Congo.

Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi has accused Rwanda's government of actively supporting M23, which controls territory near the Rwanda border. U.N. experts have cited "solid evidence" that members of Rwanda's armed forces were conducting operations in support of the rebels in eastern Congo. Rwanda denies supporting the M23.

At the same time, Burundi is accusing Rwanda of supporting another Congo-based rebel group opposed to Burundi's government. The group, known as RED-Tabara, has claimed responsibility for multiple deadly attacks inside Burundi. The latest attack, in which at least nine people were killed, happened on Sunday.

Burundi last month suspended diplomatic relations with Rwanda and closed their border, calling it a response to Rwanda's alleged backing of RED-Tabara, which is based in Congo's South Kivu province. Rwanda denies the allegation.

Burundian authorities have not revealed how many troops have been deployed to eastern Congo. They also haven't commented on the arrests of soldiers who refuse deployment across the border. Brig. Gaspard Baratuza, the Burundian military spokesman, did not respond to requests for comment.

According to two army officers and multiple prison guards who spoke to the AP, the arrests of dissenting soldiers started in December, with more than 200 detained. They include at least 103 in the Rumonge prison in the southwest, two prison guards there said. Others were being held in remand centers in Ngozi in the north, Ruyigi in the east, and Bururi in the south, according to prison guards in each of those penal institutions.

An army colonel in Bujumbura, the commercial capital, said many soldiers have been imprisoned "for having refused to fight alongside the (Congolese army) against the M23." Some also face additional charges of stealing war funds, he said, without elaborating.

"Some have already been dismissed from the army, but there are also some who have been acquitted. It is no secret that many soldiers are detained for these acts," he said.

The colonel, like others who spoke about the detentions, requested anonymity because of safety concerns.

A Burundian army captain told the AP he had deserted the military after refusing to be sent to Congo. "For a professional soldier to engage in combat, there must at least be the motive for the conflict," he said. "He must also measure his strengths and weaknesses and those of the enemy. But in the current situation we are being asked to go and fight blindly."

Washington has urged de-escalation of tensions in eastern Congo, where M23 is one of more than 100 armed groups active in eastern Congo, seeking a share of the region's gold and other resources as they carry out mass killings.

Many M23 fighters, including Congolese Tutsis, were once members of Congo's army. The group's leaders say they are fighting to protect local Tutsis from extremist Hutu groups such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, whose members were among the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide against minority Tutsis in Rwanda.

Rwandan authorities cited concerns over this armed group in a statement last week rejecting U.S. calls for Rwanda to withdraw its troops and missile systems from Congolese territory.

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