Burundi forces begin clearing protester barricades
Burundi’s security forces began clearing barricades in the capital Bujumbura on Sunday after the government ordered an immediate end to protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial bid for a third term.
Protesters pledged to defy the order and continue weeks of street demonstrations, branding the government demand a “declaration of war”, but there was limited resistance as security forces deployed.
A small, peaceful rally was held in the city centre for the first time on Sunday when hundreds of women gathered outside the interior ministry to call for “peace and unity”.
“We want peace, we want unity and democracy for all Burundians,” they chanted, ringed by dozens of police officers.
Earlier on Sunday one man was shot, and later died, as police and soldiers used force to remove barricades erected in some city neighbourhoods after the government’s order to dismantle all barriers within 48 hours.
“The military came to tell us that the roads were to be cleared and we could not resist armed men with guns. We decided to let it go,” said Fabrice, a leader of the protest movement.
Police deployed early on Sunday morning while some people were still sleeping and others were preparing to go to church. “They surprised us,” said Claude, a 25-year old student protester.
“Even if they clear the barricades we will rebuild them. There has been a lot of gunfire and some wounded,” he said.
At least 19 people have died since Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a third term in elections due next month, sparking weeks of angry demonstrations.
The latest confrontations between demonstrators and security forces came after a one-day “truce” declared by protest leaders on Saturday allowed a semblance of normality to return to Bujumbura.
But in a decision issued on Saturday, the National Security Council demanded an “immediate and unconditional” end to what it called an “insurgency” and ordered security forces to remove barricades “within 48 hours, in Bujumbura and the rest of the country”.
Protesters angrily dismissed the order.
“Who cares about the orders of the National Security Council! Let Nkurunziza leave first! Otherwise we will continue,” said Ficre, a 26-year old in the Cibitoke neighbourhood that has seen some of the worst clashes.
On Saturday night, soldiers trying to move a shipping container dragged across a road to block the main thoroughfare were forced to give up when faced with hostile youth.
The army has so far played a neutral role, often coming between stone-throwing protesters and police, and is popular among protesters who believe they are being protected from the police. But tensions have begun to appear in recent days.
The National Security Council declaration shows that the government does not intend to back down in the face of the protests, despite international pressure, while protest leaders also remain firm in their resolve to continue demonstrating, leaving little hope for a negotiated way out of the crisis.
The so-called “Collective Against a Third Mandate”, which includes more than a thousand civil society organisations and the country’s two biggest trade unions, “considers the National Security Council declaration to be a declaration of war on the people of Burundi,” said Pacifique Nininahazwe, one of its leaders.
“So far, no president has won against the people,” said Nininahazwe, citing Tunisia, Egypt and Burkina Faso where popular uprisings have led to the overthrow of presidents in recent years.
“The protests will continue until Pierre Nkurunziza understands that he cannot have a third mandate, he cannot violate our constitution,” he said.
Ignoring the protests, Nkurunziza this week was the first of eight candidates to register for presidential elections due on June 26.
Among them was Nkurunziza’s strongest challenger, Agathon Rwasa, who called for a delay in elections citing the current insecurity.
Despite the unrest, campaigning for local elections due to be held on May 26 officially began on Sunday.
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