Burundi refugees. Picture: AFP/OXFAM/MARY MNDEME
Burundi refugees. Picture: AFP/OXFAM/MARY MNDEME

BRUSSELS — European Union (EU) foreign ministers said on Monday they were prepared to strengthen economic sanctions on Burundi following the failure of talks to end a political crisis in the Central African country in which more than 440 people have been killed.

The United Nations (UN) has repeatedly warned of Burundi sliding back into an ethnically charged conflict, more than a decade after a civil war that killed 300,000, and said it had reports of mass graves and gang-rapes by security forces.

But President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose decision last April to stand for a third term triggered nine months of violence, has refused to accept an African Union peacekeeping plan, saying it would amount to an invasion.

"The EU... stands ready to impose restrictive measures against those whose actions might have led or might lead to acts of violence and repression (and) serious human rights violations," ministers said in a statement released during a meeting in Brussels, adding that those hampering a political solution could also be targeted.

The EU last year imposed asset freezes and travel bans on four officials close to Mr Nkurunziza who are accused of using excessive force during clashes in the run-up to his re-election.

However, the EU, Burundi’s biggest aid donor, said it would not suspend aid to one of the world’s poorest countries, although many of the funds were now being rerouted directly to humanitarian agencies rather than to the government.

The EU had hoped that, by inviting Burundian officials to Brussels for formal talks, they could chart a path to new elections, but the talks on December 8 failed to find a way forward.

The situation remained deadlocked and was likely to worsen as the economy weakened, the EU foreign ministers said.

Burundi is a nation with a similar ethnic mix to neighbouring Rwanda, where 800,000 people died in a genocide in 1994. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly a quarter of a million people have fled the violence in Burundi and a further 25,000 are displaced within the country.

Reuters