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Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza's controversial bid to stand for a third term in office suffered a new blow on Saturday after it emerged that a top election official had fled the country.
Sources said the election commission's vice president, Spes Caritas Ndironkeye, jetted out of the crisis-hit central African nation late Friday, leaving behind a resignation letter and preparations for next week's parliamentary vote in disarray.
A second member of the election board, which is known as CENI, is also thought to have fled, reflecting mounting unease over Nkurunziza's attempt to stay put despite worsening unrest.
The country's main opposition leader, Agathon Rwasa, said next Friday's poll would be a "masquerade" if it goes ahead, and called for it to be postponed.
Human Rights Watch said Burundi has been gripped by "pervasive fear", while the International Crisis Group think-tank said the country was headed back into conflict unless Nkurunziza backed down.
A CENI source said Ndironkeye "left without saying goodbye, without saying where she was going". A second member of the five-person commission, Illuminata Ndabahagamye, is also thought to have fled, sources said.
"What has happened is a catastrophe, but it was inevitable," another commission source said.
"Technically, the Election Commission can continue to work with four out of five members. But if two have left, no decision can be taken and it will be impossible to replace them before June 5," the source said.
Burundi's crisis surrounds Nkurunziza's bid to stands for a third consecutive five-year term in office, something that opposition and rights groups say violates the constitution as well as a 2006 peace deal that ended a 13-year civil war.
Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the conflict, marked by massacres between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi communities.
Asked to rule on the issue, Burundi's constitutional court found in favour of the president, but not before one of the judges also fled the country, claiming that its members were subject to death threats.
- Country on 'dangerous path' -
The capital Bujumbura has been hit by weeks of civil unrest that has left at least 30 people dead in a major crackdown, and the crisis intensified earlier this month when a top general staged a failed coup attempt.
The opposition has also said the holding of free and fair elections is impossible, with independent media silenced and allegations of threats and intimidation by Nkurunziza's supporters. The influential Catholic Church has also pulled its support for the polls.
"In the current conditions, if elections are held on June 5, they will not be credible or transparent, they will be a masquerade," opposition leader Rwasa told AFP. "We cannot go into such an adventure based on the egotistical interests of one man."
Parliamentary elections are due to be held on June 5, with a presidential poll scheduled for June 26.
HRW said the run up to the polls has been marked by widespread intimidation.
"Medical personnel, journalists and human rights defenders have received death threats and menacing phone calls, and been intimidated and harassed by the authorities," the group said. Many threatened were in hiding or had fled the country, it added.
"In this climate of fear and uncertainty, several scenarios are possible for Burundi’s immediate future, ranging from the highly improbable withdrawal of President Nkurunziza's candidacy to the significantly more dangerous path toward a more or less violent, and intractable, conflict," the ICG said on Saturday.
Another protester was killed Friday, while two grenades exploded in central Bujumbura, without hurting anyone.
On Saturday morning, a small number of protesters gathered in the capital despite a massive police presence.
In the heart of the capital, another grenade exploded, causing no casualties.
Police arrested and took the attacker into custody.
Also on Saturday, four protesters killed in recent days were buried, a leading anti-Nkurunziza activist said.
Meanwhile regional foreign ministers opened talks in Tanzania's Dar es Salaam, an AFP reporter said, with heads of state to meet on Sunday on Burundi, whose unrest has also sparked a refugee crisis.
It is unclear whether Nkurunziza will attend: the last time the president left the country, for the previous regional summit on May 13, some members of the armed forces tried to overthrow him.
Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader and born-again Christian, argues that his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people. His bid for re-election also has strong support in rural areas and among sections of the Hutu majority.