Gunfire Damages Sabena Jet in Burundi

Machine gun fire hit a Sabena airliner as it approached Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, injuring a passenger and crew member, the Belgian airline said today.

The Airbus A330, carrying 170 passengers and crew, was coming in to land at Bujumbura airport in the central African country on Monday evening when it was struck in an attack blamed by the government on Hutu rebels, who denied responsibility.

The plane, which was due to fly on to Nairobi and return to Brussels, landed safely but did not continue the flight.

Passengers said they saw tracer fire and heard rounds hitting the plane.

“I understood nothing,” Rafik Sasi, a Tunisian passenger injured in the incident, told journalists today.

“I thought that my ear exploded because of the pressure while landing, then I saw blood going from my head.” Doctors said he and the crew member were both not badly hurt.

In a statement issued in Brussels, Sabena said 11 bullet holes had been found, including one in the plane’s engine. Sabena’s weekly direct flights to Bujumbura would be suspended until further notice, pending results of an inquiry, it said.

“We need to determine if it’s just an isolated event or something long-term,” said company spokesman Patrick Jeandrain.

A five-member technical team from Sabena Technics had been sent to assist technicians on site and the aircraft would be out of operation for at least three days.

Witnesses saw seven bullet holes in the fuselage of the plane today — four under the flight deck and business class section and three more under a wing.

Government Pressuring Rebels

The Burundian government urged the international community today to put more pressure on Hutu rebel groups.

“We condemn the attackers and wish that the pressure that was put on the rebel groups could be increased,” Luc Rukingama, spokesman for the Burundian government, told journalists.

“It is about a small group that [has] started to shoot for publicity,” he said.

The attack came just a week before a conference of major donors to be held in Paris aimed at raising funds to revitalize Burundi’s ailing economy. “This action is an attempt to interfere in the negotiations,” Rukingama said.

The organizer of the conference and mediator of Burundi’s stuttering peace process, former South African president Nelson Mandela, has warned that the international community would be reluctant to help if Burundians themselves failed to take determined steps towards peace.

Bujumbura airport is situated outside the capital in an area regularly attacked by rebels from the FNL, one of the two main Hutu rebel groups who are fighting the Tutsi-led Burundian army.

The entire country is under a nightly curfew frequently interrupted by clashes between rebels and government troops.

But the rebels declined responsibility for the attack.

“This is a coup conducted to discredit us,” a rebel official told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location. “We attack only military targets and don’t attack civilians.”

More than 200,000 people have been killed in Burundi’s civil war — the latest phase of which began in 1993 when Tutsi troops murdered the country’s first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu.