Burundi crisis talks in bid to end political violence
Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza faced growing pressure Wednesday over days of deadly protests triggered by his bid for a third term in power, with the UN voicing concern and the opposition demanding the presidential poll be delayed.
The head of the UN’s refugee agency, Antonio Guterres, said he was “extremely worried” by the exodus sparked by the crisis.
Tens of thousands have fled the small central African nation.
While the government and opposition held talks, protesters defied calls to end demonstrations after more than a week of street battles, in which over a dozen people have been killed.
Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority who has been in power since 2005, has come under intense international pressure to withdraw from the June 26 election.
“This is a last chance… they have to come up with concrete solutions so that elections can be held in acceptable conditions,” a diplomat said of the talks, warning international funding for the polls could be cut if a deal was not struck.
But the main opposition leader Agathon Rwasa said the crisis had already gone too far, demanding a delay because the “credibility of the electoral process is already in doubt” and calling for the ruling party’s youth wing, a powerful militia called the Imbonerakure, to be disarmed.
He also criticised the police, who have fired live rounds at protestors.
On Wednesday, the police arrested a leading activist, Audifax Ndabitoreye, for “insurrection,” an AFP journalist witnessed.
The arrest of the dual Burundi and Dutch national, who has played a key role in the demonstrations, came a day after he called for further protests.
East African foreign ministers, from neighbouring Rwanda and Tanzania as well as Kenya and Uganda, met in the capital Bujumbura Wednesday, where at least 16 people were wounded in further clashes, according to the Red Cross.
Regional leaders will hold a crisis meeting on May 13 in Tanzania, the ministers said.
The government and opposition also held talks, after furious protesters rejected a constitutional court ruling allowing Nkurunziza to stand again.
The court’s vice-president fled the country after refusing to sign the judgement.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday he was “deeply concerned” about Nkurunziza’s decision to run again, which he said “flies directly in the face of the constitution”.
– ‘Enough crises’ –
Burundi’s foreign ministry declared that “peace and security reigned” across the country, apart from “a few districts of the capital… shaken by illegal demonstrations and violence triggered by certain political opponents.”
Vice-President Prosper Bazombanza pleaded for the protests to end, offering to release demonstrators who had been arrested, lift arrest warrants issued for key activists and reopen independent radio stations — provided “protests and the insurrection stop”.
Burundi, where a 13-year civil war between Tutsis and Hutus ended only in 2006, has been rocked by violent protests since the ruling CNDD-FDD nominated Nkurunziza to stand for a third term.
Critics say his candidacy violates the constitution and the Arusha accords that ended the civil war.
Nkurunziza’s supporters counter that he is eligible to stand again since his first term in office followed his election by parliament — not directly by the people, as required by the current constitution.
Over 35,000 Burundians have already fled to neighbouring nations, mainly to Rwanda.
Expressing concern at the situation, UNHCR chief Guterres said: “We thought Burundian refugees were something we would never have to discuss again, unfortunately we are back to having a significant outflow of Burundians.”
“It must stop. We have enough crises in the world,” Guterres said in Kenya.
Rwanda has warned Burundi it must protect civilians and said it has received reports linking the violence to ethnic Hutu rebels from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who fled Rwanda into Democratic Republic of Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide of mainly Tutsis.
Rwanda has previously sent troops into DR Congo to tackle the rebels.
Burundi’s foreign ministry dismissed the reports, saying such forces would not be “tolerated on Burundian territory.”
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