Burundi president sticks to third term bid despite protests

President of Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza. Image source defenceweb

President of Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza. Image source defenceweb

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza will not back down on his bid for a third term in power, a spokesman said Tuesday, dismissing calls by protesters who have clashed with police for three days.

At least five people have died since unrest broke out at the weekend, when the ruling CNDD-FDD party — accused of intimidating opponents — designated Nkurunziza its candidate for the presidential election to be held in the central African nation on June 26.

“We won’t back down, that is out of the question,” presidential communications chief Willy Nyamitwe told AFP, blaming demonstrators for the violence.

With “this path of violence they have chosen, we recall the darkest years of our history,” he said.

Amid international concern, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday dispatched his envoy Said Djinnit to Burundi, urging “all sides to reject violence and avoid using inflammatory language or hate speech.”

Opposition figures and rights groups say Nkurunziza’s attempt to stay in power goes against the constitution as well as the peace deal that ended a civil war in 2006.

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the 13-year conflict, which divided the country along ethnic lines, between the Hutu majority and Tutsi people.

The government has banned all protests and deployed large numbers of police and troops onto the streets, firing live ammunition, tear gas and water cannons, with hundreds of stone-throwing protesters arrested.

Some of those killed were shot at close range, while the police said at least 37 officers have been wounded.

Police brought more reinforcements on to the streets on Tuesday, but the demonstrators remained defiant — although most were contained in side streets and blocked from the capital’s centre.

“We wanted to demonstrate peacefully in the city centre, but police prevented us,” said Fidele, one of those who took to the streets. “So we erected barricades to prevent the police from coming into the neighbourhood.”

Police chief Andre Ndayambaje appealed for people not to turn “protests into a rebellion.”

The main independent radio station has also been shut down.

But senior opposition leader Charles Nditije said the protest action would continue until Nkurunziza agrees not to run for re-election.

“He will have no other choice than to give it up because we are determined to go all the way,” he told AFP.

– Dissident released –

The president, a former rebel leader and born-again Christian from the Hutu majority, has been in power for two terms since 2005.

His supporters say he is eligible to run again, as his first term in office was after he was elected by parliament — not directly by the people as the constitution states.

The protesters “are people who just do not want to go to elections because they are afraid,” Nyamitwe said, adding the ruling party had a right to present its choice of candidate “like all other parties.”

But opponents rejected the government accusations that they were exacerbating ethnic divisions.

“We are all united, Hutu and Tutsi,” said Jean-Bosco, 32, a driver, saying those taking action were angry at what they saw as the breaking of the spirit of the civil war peace deal, which states a president can be in power for no more than a decade.

An arrest warrant has been issued for civil society activist Vital Nshimirimana — who has since gone into hiding — but security forces on Tuesday released fellow activist Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa a day after his arrest.

“They had no evidence against me,” Mbonimpa, 66, told reporters, saying he was held only for questioning. “I was mistreated, roughed up.”

Some 25,000 Burundians have fled the country in recent weeks, according to the UN refugee agency, which has warned the numbers could rise.

Many are fleeing threats by the pro-government militia Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party.

Rights groups allege that the militia has been armed and trained over the past year in order to help Nkurunziza remain in office.

The European Union said violence, arrests of human rights activists, restrictions on the media and an outflow of people into neighbouring countries had no place in an electoral process.

The US embassy in Bujumbura said it would “hold accountable those responsible for violence against the civilian population”, while the African Union has appealed to the Burundi government to “exercise the highest restraint.”

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