Claims that Rwanda is providing refuge to Burundians who plan to launch a rebellion against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government could strain relations between the two countries.
Canisius Ndayimanisha, the governor of Kayanza Province, said the rebels had entered Burundi from Rwanda and engaged the Burundian army, leaving 31 rebels dead and 170 captured. Six government soldiers were injured in the fighting and a cache of arms seized.
“The armed group entered from Rwanda and attacked very early on Sunday morning. The local population alerted a military post and there were battles, which left 12 of the attackers dead,” Mr Ndayimanisha said.
Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Louise Mushikiwabo could not be reached to respond to the claims, but the minister, who is also the government spokesperson, reportedly said that Burundi found it “convenient to find responsibility elsewhere.”
Rwandan officials also dismissed claims that the fighting, which took place in Kayanza and Cibitoke provinces, was “near” Rwanda.
Kibira National Park stretches from the Rwandan border deep into Burundi. The rebels are said to have taken advantage of the thick vegetation to push through to within kilometres of the capital Bujumbura.
Olivier Nduhungirehe, the acting director general in charge of multilateral affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Co-operation, tweeted that the areas where the fighting took place were “nearer” to the capital Bujumbura than they were to Rwanda. Reports indicate that some Burundian opposition members are camping in Rwanda.
An opposition figure, who spoke to The EastAfrican in Kigali on condition of anonymity, said Burundian refugees in Rwanda could return home to fight President Nkurunziza’s government.
“What is clear is that President Nkurunziza is not relinquishing power soon, and he will win the elections illegitimately. So the only way for us is to fight our way back and remove him,” said the official, who was previously a high ranking member of Burundian civil society.
He said that the majority of the over 60,000 refugees in Rwanda would be willing to return home, but under the current circumstances it is impossible.
“It is our own initiative and wish to return home by all means,” the official said, denying that they have support from the Rwandan government.
On Thursday, the National Liberation Front (FNL), who previously waged a war against the government, denied links to the rebels, who they said were a creation of the Burundian government.
“War has never been part of our plans. The alleged rebels are a creation of the government to use it as an excuse to harass the opposition further. We do not support calls for a civil war,” said Agathon Rwasa, leader of the FNL.