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Burundi on brink of all-out warfare

This central African nation edged closer to all-out ethnic warfare Tuesday as the president nearly was stoned at the burial of massacre victims and international officials pleaded with government officials to stop the expulsion of thousands of refugees to neighboring Rwanda.

Foreign diplomats said that the slaughter of 300 civilians Saturday had further polarized the nation's Hutus and Tutsis and that the result could be the death of a regional peace plan and a possible coup by Tutsi leaders.

"The next few days will be crucial," one Western diplomat said.

He spoke after President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, the Hutu president of Burundi's coalition government, was swarmed by an angry crowd of 1,000 Tutsis in Bugendana, where 300 Tutsis were shot, hacked and burned to death Saturday by Hutu rebels.

The crowd threw rocks, sticks and dirt at Ntibantunganya, forcing him to flee in his helicopter. He was not hurt.

Saturday's massacre was the latest atrocity in a cycle of ethnic violence that has engulfed Burundi since the assassination of its first Hutu president in 1993. Officials say more than 150,000 people, almost all civilians, have died at the hands of the rebels and Tutsi-dominated army.

Burundi currently operates under a coalition government, and the Hutu president and Tutsi prime minister last month agreed to a peace plan that would welcome soldiers from other African countries to help restore order. But last weekend's massacre hardened Tutsi opposition to the plan, which foreign diplomats say could be the country's last chance to avoid civil war.

Meanwhile, Burundian officials said they would halt their efforts to forcibly repatriate 85,000 Rwandan Hutus who have sought refuge in Burundi since their country's 1994 massacres.

Burundi began to expel the refugees Friday but stepped up the operation after Saturday's massacre. By Tuesday night, they had expelled 17,000 Rwandans, cramming them into trucks and containers for a ride over the border. Three, including an 18-month-old baby, died of suffocation.