Burundi crisis spreads outside the capital

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Butagazwa (Burundi) (AFP) - The arsonists watched from the side of the hill as a house, belonging to a local boss of Burundi's ruling party, went up in smoke.

Three soldiers stationed in the area quickly come running in the hope of giving chase, but the arsonists disappear into the surrounding hills and melt into the countryside, leaving behind frustrated troops and a smouldering running under a buckled tin roof.

The house belonged to the vice president of the ruling CNDD-FDD party in the municipality of Mugongomanga, just outside the capital Bujumbura -- and an area of strong opposition to President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid to stand for a third consecutive term in office.

The capital itself has seen more than a month of street protests against the ruling party, which have met with a fierce crackdown by police, backed up by members of the Imbonerakure, the CNDD-FDD's youth wing that the United Nation's has branded as a militia.

Close to 40 people have died in the clashes, with scores more wounded or arrested, while opposition leaders, independent journalists and civil society activists have fled the country.

But Rural Bujumbura province, where Butagazwa is situated, has also seen its share of protests -- more isolated and sporadic, and largely unnoticed since the shutting down of independent media during fighting and attacks that followed a failed coup attempt on Mat 13.

The road leading to the torched hill-top house, which belonged to Diomedes Ndabahinyuye, is littered with tree trunks and stumps laid by demonstrators to obstruct the traffic.

According to local residents, hundreds of youth had descended on the area early Friday morning, apparently to avenge another protester who was shot and wounded by police the previous week.

"A week ago there were protests, and the police came to disperse them," said Bruno Gahungu, a brother-in-law of the owner of the burned house. "They accused Diomedes of having called out the police. That's why they came."

- Demonstrations spreading? -

Other residents said the protesters had also heard rumours that the party official was hiding weapons, including grenades, in the house.

"Lies," said the brother-in-law. "If he had had weapons, things would have happened otherwise."

Still, he admitted that the CNDD-FDD had become a subject of hatred. The owner himself turned up with military reinforcements, and said the attack had not come as a surprise because of recent threats.

Further down the road, demonstrators said they usually live "in harmony" with members of the CNDD-FDD.

"But he had gone too far and we wanted to give a warning to all those tempted to do the same," said one protester in the nearby village of Ijenda. He would not give his name.

Here, he says, protests are taking place on a near-daily basis, "to show that even in the countryside, people do not want the third term".

Escalating violence in the provinces is bad news for the president, who over the past week appears to have only just managed to gain the upper hand over demonstrators in several districts of the capital.

It will also boost the spirits of the opposition, who maintain that the only solution to the crisis is for Nkurunziza to back down and agree to pass the presidency of the small central African nation to somebody else.

President Nkurunziza "had promised to Burundians that it would be two terms, and now he wants three," complained a local roadside vegetable seller. "That's what keeps us from having peace."

Nkurunziza hopes to win a third term in elections due later this month, but opponents say his candidacy is unconstitutional and goes against the 2006 Arusha peace deal that ended 13 years of civil war.

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