NNA – Burundi police battled with protesters Wednesday as East African leaders gathered for crisis talks aimed at ending weeks of deadly violence over the president’s controversial third term bid.
As regional leaders and international envoys arrived in Tanzania’s main city Dar es Salaam, hundreds of protesters gathered in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, chanting anti-government slogans. Police fired shots in the air and tear gas to disperse them.
Clashes between security forces and demonstrators have raised fears of a return to violence in the central African state, which is still recovering from a brutal 13-year civil war that ended in 2006.
Despite intense international pressure, President Pierre Nkurunziza has repeatedly rejected international calls to end his bid for a third term.
The African Union, European Union and United States have condemned the actions of Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority who has been in power for a decade.
Over 20 people have been killed and scores wounded since late April, when Burundi’s ruling party nominated Nkurunziza to stand for re-election in June 26 polls.
– Calls for election delay –
More than 50,000 Burundians have fled into neighbouring nations since then, with the UN preparing for thousands more to come.
Leaders of the five-nation East African Community (EAC) — made up of Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda as well as Burundi — arrived in Tanzania Wednesday in a bid to mediate an end to the crisis, amid calls for polls to be delayed.
But Nkurunziza’s close aide Willy Nyamitwe rejected any election postponement, asking how was it that “the heads of state could challenge the candidacy of President Nkurunziza?”
Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila, South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, AU chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and the top U.S. diplomat for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield are also expected to attend.
– ‘We will continue to protest’ –
Opposition and civil society leaders were not invited however, and have said they will continue to protest until Nkurunziza steps down.
“We need the heads of state to give a direct message to Nkurunziza, they must tell him the truth, that his people are fed up,” said Pacifique Nininahazwe, a leader of the protests, speaking from Bujumbura.
“We will continue to protest until he goes.”
Opposition groups insist that it is unconstitutional for Nkurunziza to run for more than two terms.
But he argues that his first presidential term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people.
Asked to rule on the issue, the constitutional court found in his favour but not before one of the judges fled the country claiming its members were subject to death threats.
Former Burundi president Domitien Ndayizeye, a candidate in the presidential polls on June 26, said east Africa’s leaders had “no other choice” than to tell Nkurunziza not to run, or else “betray” the Arusha Agreement to which they are signatories — the deal which brought peace to Burundi after years of civil war.
“How could they go against the Arusha Agreement that they themselves have backed?” Ndayizeye said.
Diplomatic sources suggested that regional leaders — some of whom have themselves been in power for decades — would be unlikely to make any major decision against Nkurunziza, but analysts said the pressure was intense.
“I don’t see anyone who will come out in support of him,” said Thierry Vircoulon from the International Crisis Group.
“Everybody is very worried about the refugee crisis.” —AFP