Nearly 600 Burundians who fled political violence in their home country to Tanzania were on Thursday repatriated voluntarily, the UN refugee agency and witnesses said.
The move came after the Tanzanian government vowed that from October 1 it would start repatriating all Burundians, willing or not -- a stance that some officials appeared to be trying to roll back.
A UNHCR official told AFP on condition of anonymity that "590 Burundian refugees left Tanzania in a convoy of voluntary returnees this morning."
The group arrived on eight buses in Gisuru in eastern Burundi, where there is a transit centre for returning refugees, witnesses said.
"These returnees will stay in the camp until tomorrow (Friday), before being sent to their home towns with a kit of supplies to last them three months," a Burundian official told AFP, also on condition of anonymity.
The UNHCR has facilitated the voluntary return of almost 75,000 refugees since September 2017, under a deal with Burundi and Tanzania.
According to the agency, some 225,000 Burundian refugees are still living in three camps in Tanzania.
Another 71,000 are in Rwanda, 45,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo and 43,000 in Uganda.
At the end of August, Tanzanian Interior Minister Kangi Lugola said that from October 1, all Burundian refugees would be sent back home, arguing that their home was now at peace.
However government spokesman Hassan Abbas said Thursday that "nobody will be forced to go back."
Nevertheless he insisted "Burundi is peaceful and they are busy preparing for elections next year."
"Tanzania respects the international agreements on refugees and will ensure the refugees relocation process is handled carefully," he told reporters.
Burundi has been in crisis since 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a third term and was re-elected in a vote boycotted by most of the opposition.
At least 1,200 people were killed and more than 400,000 displaced in violence between April 2015 and May 2017 the UN says was mostly carried out by state security forces.
In August the UNHCR said in a statement: "While overall security has improved, UNHCR is of the opinion conditions in Burundi are not currently conducive to promote returns."
"(...) Hundreds still flee Burundi each month, and UNHCR urges governments in the region to maintain open borders and access to asylum for those who need it," the UNHCR added.
Burundian refugees in the camps who spoke to AFP by phone said the situation was calm and that those seeking to return voluntarily were registering with authorities.
However they said some had chosen to flee to Uganda, Rwanda or Kenya because of pressure to return back to Burundi.
"At first they banned leaving the camp to work in the fields of Tanzanians, then they closed the shops, the bars inside the camps. Most recently they closed the markets," one refugee said in the Nduta camp in the northwest of the country.