Burundi said on Friday it was releasing 247 prisoners from the last remaining rebel group in the central African nation as a part of the implementation of a long-delayed peace agreement.
Analysts say the political and military integration of the rebel Forces for National Liberation (FNL), which sporadically launches attacks, is the last barrier to stability in the coffee-growing nation of 8 million people.
"The 247 people are going to be released under a presidential decree signed on December 30, 2008," Justice Ministry spokesman Andre Ntahomvukiye told reporters.
Two decades of civil war that killed 300,000 people ended in mid-2006 with a deal between the government and the FNL, whose fighters hold the hills outside the capital Bujumbura.
Mediators led by South Africa have been growing impatient the deal has not been fully implemented and gave both sides until the end of 2008 to complete agreement, or risk losing regional support.
Ntahomvukiye said the decree granted prisoners provisional immunity for political offences committed before the signing of the peace deal, but not against genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.
At a summit of regional leaders last month, President Pierre Nkurunziza committed to releasing all FNL political and war prisoners. The FNL agreed to send its fighters to assembly areas for disarmament and demobilisation.
The rebel group, which is seeking more time to transform itself into a political party as part of the peace deal, said the freed prisoners had not yet been handed over to FNL leaders.
"We just heard that there are some of our prisoners who have been released, but we have not yet seen them," said FNL spokesman Pasteur Habimana.
The Justice Ministry said the release of the prisoners had been delayed by the New Year public holiday in Burundi, but they should start being freed on Friday.
Last Mod: 02 Ocak 2009, 18:00