Burundi’s government and opposition kicked off peace talks on Monday, though one senior member of the state delegation almost immediately threatened to pull out if he saw participants in a failed coup on the other side of the table.
Regional powers called both sides to Uganda for discussions to end months of fighting, which began in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza’s plan to seek a third term triggered street protests and, a month later, an attempted putsch.
Continued clashes and gun attacks in the central African nation have unnerved a region where memories of the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda are still raw.
There has also been no sign of a rapprochement between the government and opposition groups who say Mr Nkurunziza’s re-election bid broke constitutional term limits and a peace deal that ended a decade-long civil war in 2005.
Mr Nkurunziza, who went on to win a disputed vote in July, points to a court ruling allowing a third term.
The ruling CNDD-FDD party “can’t be part of the talks if those who took part of the failed coup are involved”, Victor Burikukiye, a member of the ruling party delegation, said as the talks opened.
It was not immediately clear who would participate from the opposition.
The African Union (AU) said this month it was ready to send 5,000 peacekeepers to protect civilians in Burundi, something the government has rejected as a violation of its sovereignty.
More than a hundred Nkurunziza supporters gathered at the Rwandan, Belgian and European Union embassies in the Burundian capital Bujumbura to protest against the plan.
Monday’s talks in Uganda drew Burundian government and opposition delegations, representatives from the AU and the United Nations (UN), and Western diplomats. The next phase of the talks will be held at the headquarters of the East African Community bloc in Arusha, Tanzania.
“I appeal to you … to sit down and have a political solution so that you save your people from that suffering which they’re going through now,” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said as he opened the session.
International monitors say they fear Burundi could be headed to civil war.
The UN estimates 400 people have already been killed. More than 220,000 people have fled Burundi since April, and Rwanda, which has similar ethnic fault lines, says more than 73,000 Burundians are now on its soil.