A bloody conflict has erupted in the little-known central Africa state of Burundi, with African Union (AU) officials warning that without international intervention there is a danger of another ethnic genocide on the scale of that in neighbouring Rwanda which took nearly a million lives in just 100 days in 1994.

“The African Union and international community cannot sit by and watch genocide if it is going to develop,” said Erastus Mwencha, deputy chairman of the administrative branch of the Addis Ababa-based AU Commission, roughly analogous to the Brussels-based European Commission.

Voices from within the AU and elsewhere are warning that Burundi today mirrors the pre-April 1994 situation in Rwanda when Major-General Romeo Dallaire, head of a small UN Peacekeeping force of 2,200 soldiers, was sending streams of messages to United Nations headquarters in New York warning that mass murder of Tutsi people by Hutu tribal militias was about the begin. With an extra 5,000 soldiers, Dallaire said he thought he could prevent the impending slaughter. Instead, Kofi Annan, then head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, backed by United States President Bill Clinton, slashed Dallaire’s force by 90 percent and the infamous Rwandan genocide began.

Dallaire, who personally carried bodies of the dead and dying, subsequently resigned and suffered a massive nervous breakdown before writing: “I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the Devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the Devil exists, and therefore I know there is a God.”

The Burundi crisis has been long in the making, but the event that propelled it to world attention came in April last year when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to prolong his two-term, ten-year rule by removing the prohibition in the constitution against the head of state running for a third term. Nkurunziza then survived an attempted military coup before winning an election in July that was boycotted by the opposition and declared “not credible” by international observers.

Since then Nkurunziza – whose surname in Kirundi translates as “Joyful Tidings” – has tried to suppress his opponents. Bodies with hands tied behind their backs, and with their eyes gouged out, appear on the streets of the capital, Bujumbura, every morning, victims for the most part of police and a pro-government militia, the Imbonerakure [“Those Who See Far”]. More than 220,000 people have fled to neighbouring states and six separate rebel movements have been formed, united only by their desire to bring down the Nkurunziza government.

Burundi shares the same colonial history as neighbouring Rwanda. Both are former African kingdoms that were ruled first by Germany and then, until 1962, by Belgium. Both have similar ethnic make-ups, 85 percent Hutu and 14 percent Tutsi. Two of independent Burundi’s first three prime ministers were assassinated, as well as two presidents. Governments have come and gone in quick succession until the arrival of Nkurunziza. In two waves of ethnic killings, in 1972 and then from 1993 to 2005, some 700,000 Burundians were killed in a country of only 10 million people.

The Hutu and Tutsi in both countries spoke the same language, shared similar customs and lived intermingled and, to a surprising extent, intermarried on the same green hillsides that are a feature of Burundi and Rwanda. In the pre-colonial era the Tutsi, a cattle-owning people, were a royal elite of aristocrats and chiefs who established themselves as a feudal ruling class over the Hutu, who were predominantly agriculturalists.

Belgian colonial officials reinforced the divisions by introducing a system of apartheid-style identity cards specifying the tribe to which a holder belonged. In cases where appearance was decisive, or proof of ancestry was lacking, a simple formula was applied: those with ten cows were classified as Tutsi, those with fewer were Hutu. It meant it was virtually impossible for a Hutu to break through into the ruling elite. Whatever sense of collective identity had existed historically in the two kingdoms shrivelled and died.

Aware of Burundi’s fragile and turbulent history and the danger posed to Africa’s international reputation by a potential repeat of the Rwanda genocide, the AU’s Peace and Security Council announced just before Christmas plans to deploy 5,000 peacekeeping soldiers to the country to protect civilians.

The AU decision was historic was for two reasons. It was the first time the AU – traditionally opposed to external interference in the internal affairs of the organisation’s 54 member states – had invoked a clause in its charter that does allow it to intervene in a country under “grave circumstances”, defined as “war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” And it also created the possibility of a first operation within a member country of the AU’s fledgling East African Standby Force, drawing troops from ten nations – including Burundi and Rwanda.

But many experts are cautioning against the probability of any rapid deployment – not only because the United Nations has to approve the move but because President Nkurunziza has threatened to fight the AU peacekeepers.

“It is important to note that the idea of deployment first has to be approved by the Burundian government,” said Stephanie Wolters, a Central Africa specialist and head of conflict prevention at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies.

If Burundi refuses the matter has to go back to the AU for a vote by heads of state: two-thirds must be in agreement for the proposed deployment to go ahead. With several leaders enjoying dubious legitimacy and others having extended their mandates in much the same way as President Nkurunziza, the probability of the proposed intervention being sanctioned looks slim indeed.

Reacting in a belligerent speech on 30 December to the AU’s proposal, Nkurunziza warned that any deployment of AU troops to his country would be a violation of Burundi’s sovereignty.

“You cannot send troops to a country if the United Nations Security Council has not accepted it,” he said. “Everyone has to respect Burundi’s borders. The country will have been attacked – and we will fight them [the AU soldiers]. Each Burundian must stand up to fight them.”

Phil Clark, a Rwanda and Burundi expert at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said he doubts whether the AU plan would be effective even if implemented.

“The AU East African Standby Force has never fired a shot in anger. It is ill-prepared to deal with the magnitude of the situation in Burundi: it may even inflame the situation if Burundi sees this as military meddling by its neighbours.”

The great fear of outsiders, meanwhile, is that Burundi’s military - divided 50-50 between Hutu and Tutsi, according to a 2000 peace accord signed in the Tanzanian town of Arusha - will split along ethnic lines. But that is what is already happening, despite the fact that the military has largely remained aloof from the violence perpetrated mostly by the police and the Imbonerakure militia.

Nkurunziza, a Hutu, has begun sidelining Tutsi officers whose loyalty is questioned. Tutsis in turn are beginning to defect from the army and go into exile in protest against the fact that the nightly killings are largely targeted on Tutsi areas. The government denies any ethnic bias, saying that all those being killed are “enemies.”

Human rights activists caution that it is undeniable that most Tutsis are terrified and warn that the surest recipe for all-out war is if the military divides tribally.

On Christmas Eve a Tutsi army colonel announced that he was forming a new rebel group – the sixth since the present troubles began. The defection of Colonel Edouard Nshimirimana has stirred speculation that many other Tutsi officers will follow him, leading to conflict and mass bloodshed.

Some 70,000 Burundian Tutsis have fled to Rwanda, where most are housed in a giant refugee camp at Mahama, near the Burundi border. There, alleges the United States-based advocacy group Refugees International, young men, women and children are being recruited on an “aggressive” scale, with the complicity of Rwandan officials, and trained as guerrilla soldiers in an anti-Nkurunziza army. The recruits are taken in buses and military vehicles for weapons training in nearby Nyungwe Forest National Park before being infiltrated into Burundi through the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Refugees International says that Rwanda, as a host country, has a duty under international law to protect civilian refugees from military recruitment. It adds, however, that the rebels are seeking to establish a 5,000-strong army, already named as the Imbogoraburundi, which translates as “Those who will bring Burundi upright.”

Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, senior advocate at Refugees International and co-author of its Rwanda/Burundi report, said: “The possibility of Rwanda being involved would clearly lead to regional conflagration.”

Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s lanky and austere leader who has been President for fifteen years, scoffed at allegations of recruitment of Tutsi refugees to train as guerrilla fighters and destabilise Burundi as “childish.” He went on: “I haven’t seen any evidence, not the tiniest evidence to prove that.” However, Kagame has a well-established reputation for denying his country’s military intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Kagame holds many of the most important keys to whether Burundi’s tragedy resolves peacefully or violently. As a four-year-old in 1961, Kagame fled into exile in Uganda with his family after he had witnessed Hutu mobs setting fire to Tutsi houses in his home village. As an adult, he emerged as the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front guerrilla army that invade Rwanda from Uganda in 1994 and overthrew the Hutu génocidaires. Ruthless, tough and single-minded, Kagame earned the Tutsi the sobriquet “the Israelis of Africa.”

Meanwhile, in Burundi the nightly killings continue. Roman Catholic monk Brother Hippolyte Manirakiza runs the centre for neuropsychiatry in Kamenge, a poor suburb of Bujumbura. Brother Hippolyte says he is seeing an increasing number of patients attending his hospital. "They come because they're scared and can't sleep at night,” he said. “People are really afraid, they suffer from fear. And they don't know what will happen tomorrow. Death becomes a really simple thing."

In the short run, the best hope of preventing all-out war in Burundi rests in a meeting convened by the AU between the various parties in Arusha this Wednesday. But Nkurunziza says he will not talk to the opposition, which he accuses of being behind the abortive military coup in April, while the opposition says it will not enter negotiations until the massacres in Burundi stop. In short, the future looks bleak.