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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Burundi Braces for Sanctions

BUJUMBURA, Burundi -- A huge crane swings tons of sugar, imported to make beer, onto the quay at the port on Lake Tanganyika.


Even when the military took over Burundi in a coup last week, the breweries didn't shut down. The earthy aroma of fermented grain wafted through the capital when streets were deserted and only armed soldiers patrolled.


But what a military coup couldn't stop, economic sanctions may. Already one of the poorest countries in the world, Burundi is threatened by a trade embargo that could destroy a fragile economy battered by three years of civil war.


"If there was an embargo from our neighbors, it would be the death of our country," Thomas Minani, director general of the state-run Coffee Office, said Thursday. "Everyone will suffer."


East African leaders Wednesday threatened to impose sanctions to force Burundi's new military leader, Pierre Buyoya, to abide by constitutional rule. But they did not agree on details, leaving that to "technical experts."


Awaiting details on the threatened sanctions, Buyoya issued a statement calling "on all of Burundi's foreign friends to trust the new authorities, [and] on the international community to wait and judge on their results."


Like most African nations, Burundi is battling a massive foreign debt that has strangled economic development. Its $1 billion-plus debt is four times its gross national product.


Most foreign loans to Burundi were cut off two years ago, with the United States terminating $3 million in development aid after last week's coup.


Buyoya has said his coup was intended to prevent widespread ethnic slaughter of the type that killed 500,000 people in neighboring Rwanda during two months in 1994. So far, 150,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the three years of Tutsi-Hutu fighting in Burundi.


Bujumbura and other major cities are inhabited mainly by Tutsis, who make up 14 percent of the country's 6 million people. The tiny landlocked country depends on neighbors to import its coffee, tea, cotton and other raw materials.


Most of the coffee, which accounts for 80 percent of the country's exports, is transported by boat down Lake Tanganyika and then via railroad across Tanzania to the port of Dar es Salaam. This year's coffee crop is expected to generate $70 million.