BUJUMBURA, Burundi – Burundi and Rwanda warned on Tuesday that they might send troops into neighboring Congo if that country fails to disarm militias responsible for massacring more than 160 Congolese refugees at a U.N. camp in Burundi — threats that could re-ignite a regional conflict in this corner of Africa.
The Burundian army was prepared to cross the border into Congo to pursue the Hutu rebels (search) responsible for Friday's attack, Brig. Gen. Germain Niyoyankana, the head of the Burundian army, said Tuesday. The rebels launched their assault from Congo, witnesses said.
"We must avoid a new attack from Congo so the Burundi army does not rule out an offensive in ... Congo. Everything depends on the Congolese government," Niyoyankana said. "Our president has asked the Congolese government for an explanation."
Rwandan Foreign Minister Charles Muligande said his country was prepared to act against Rwandan rebels and allied groups based in Congo if the international community failed to disarm them.
Civil wars between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis (search) in Burundi, Rwanda and Congo have ravaged the region for more than a decade, including the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which 500,000 people — mostly Tutsis — were killed, an ongoing civil war in Burundi and a five-year war in Congo.
Rwanda and Burundi have twice invaded Congo trying to root out Hutu militias. The second invasion, in 1998, sparked a war in Congo involving six African countries. An estimated 3.5 million people died, most from war-induced disease and starvation, during the conflict.
Extremist groups have ganged up with an agenda of eliminating Tutsis from Burundi, Rwanda and Congo, Muligande said in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. He blamed the massacre on remnants of extremist Hutu militias responsible for the genocide.
"The status quo cannot be maintained," Muligande, a Tutsi, said. "We will not wait to be exterminated."
Congo Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Ondekane said Rwanda and Burundi "are free to make any declarations they want. They are sovereign states."
But he said Congo should not bear sole responsibility for the refugee massacre "because these rebels are in all three countries. Invading our country isn't a solution. They [Rwanda and Burundi] were in Congo but they did nothing to disarm the rebels."
In Washington, the State Department condemned the massacre and called for a prompt U.N. investigation. It also said authorities in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo should help identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.
On Tuesday, the United Nations said it suspended talks with the Burundian rebels claiming responsibility for the massacre.
The U.N. had been brokering peace talks between Burundi's government and the National Liberation Forces — the last rebel group still fighting in the country's 11-year-old civil war, said Isabelle Abric, spokeswoman of the U.N. mission in Burundi.
"The negotiations have been suspended because they are claiming responsibility for the attack" in which Congolese Tutsi refugees were shot, hacked, stabbed and burned to death, Abric told The Associated Press. "It seems they are not willing to contribute to the peace process."
The massacre threatens efforts to restore peace in Congo, warned Congolese Vice President Azarias Ruberwa, a former rebel leader who attended a Monday mass burial in a dusty cotton field with Burundian President Domitien Ndayizeye.
"This is a real genocide," said Ruberwa, who is a Tutsi. The victims "were killed simply because of the fact that they were Congolese Tutsis."
The rebel National Liberation Forces said its fighters staged the attack, claiming Burundian soldiers and Congolese Tutsi militiamen were hiding at the camp.
Burundian officials and witnesses said the Burundian rebels were accompanied by Hutu extremists based in Congo.
Officials from U.N. missions in Burundi and Rwanda are investigating the massacre and U.N. troops are being sent to increase security around the four camps for Congolese refugees, Abric said.