ADDIS Ababa, Ethiopia - A proposed peacekeeping force for troubled Burundi appeared in doubt Sunday, as African leaders pulled back from sending troops amid vehement opposition from the government in Bujumbura.
The UN has warned Burundi risks a repeat of a 1993-2006 civil war, with hundreds killed since April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would stand for a controversial third term in office. At least 230,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries.
Burundi has consistently opposed the idea of the AU's proposed 5,000-strong peacekeeping mission, saying the deployment of troops without its express permission would be tantamount to an "invasion force".
The AU charter's Article 4 (h) gives the pan-African bloc the right to intervene in a fellow nation state "in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity."
But top African Union diplomats said that sending troops without Burundi's approval was "unimaginable," and suggested the bloc might rather send a "high-level delegation" to hold talks with the government.
"It has been, I think, bad communication. It was never the intention of the African Union to deploy a mission to Burundi without the consent of Burundian authorities," Ibrahima Fall, AU Special Representative for the Great Lakes Region, told French radio RFI on Sunday.
"This is unimaginable," the Senegalese diplomat added.
- 'We don't do enough' -
AU leaders are debating the crisis in Burundi on the second and final day of the 54-member bloc's summit in Ethiopia. The talks are being held behind closed doors and it is unclear when a final decision will be taken.
Analysts say other African nations are wary of setting a precedent of deploying troops against the government's wishes.
Chad's President Idriss Deby, speaking after he took over the post of African Union chairman on Saturday, warned colleagues against inaction.
"Our organisation acts as it has for the past 20 or 30 years: we meet often, we talk too much, we always write a lot, but we don't do enough, and sometimes not all," Deby said.
Nkurunziza's quest to remain in power sparked weeks of street protests that were brutally suppressed and a failed coup.
Since his re-election in July, clashes between government loyalists and the opposition have become increasingly violent.
The political rhetoric has also become more ethnically-charged, sparking fears the ruling party may be trying to drive a wedge between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis.
- Leaders 'must be held responsible' -
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking on Saturday as the AU summit opened, made clear troops were needed to stem the violence.
"Leaders who stand by while civilians are slaughtered in their name must be held responsible," Ban said, insisting that the Burundi crisis required the "most serious and urgent commitment".
He said the UN backed the AU's proposal "to deploy human rights observers and to establish a prevention and protection mission".
But Burundi has remained defiant in its opposition and has apparently won supporters.
Asked whether Bujumbura had the support of other nations opposed to the plan, Burundian Foreign Minister Alain Nyamitwe insisted it did.
"Yes, very strong (support), you will see," he said on Friday.
While the official theme of the AU meeting is human rights, leaders are again dealing with a string of crises across the continent during talks at the organisation's headquarters in the Ethiopian capital.
Rather than a new AU mission, other nations have called for better support for existing forces, including the 22,000-strong AU mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
Burundian troops make up a core contingent of AMISOM in its battle against Islamist Shebab insurgents. The Shebab have overrun a series of AU bases, including a Kenyan-manned base earlier this month.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta called for "more resources for the forces in Somalia so that AMISOM can have robust power on land, air and the sea."