Burundi opposition leaders detained as polls loom

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Burundi opposition leaders on Friday accused Bujumbura of eliminating rivals ahead of elections, after a senior opposition figure was jailed for bribery and another arrested for rebel links.

The action against the two leaders comes amid growing fears of violence ahead of the elections later this year, with a string of attacks including a five-day battle earlier this month between the army and rebels.

Frederic Bamvuginyumvira, a former Burundian vice-president and current deputy leader of the Front for Democracy (Frodebu) party, was sentenced Thursday to five years in jail for bribery following a sex scandal.

He told AFP the sentence handed down by the country's anti-corruption court was made to "remove me from the electoral race".

Meanwhile Frodebu youth leader Patrick Nkurunziza was arrested on Thursday, the most prominent figure held in connection with a rebel force that entered the country from lawless regions of neighbouring eastern Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this month.

The army says it killed around 100 of the rebels and that documents they seized showed the insurgents had been planning a major offensive to destabilise the country.

The two opposition figures are the latest of several politicians to face criminal charges ahead of the key polls in May and a presidential election in June.

But opposition politicians and critics say the government is doing all it can to sideline political challengers ahead of the elections, including arrests, harassment and a clampdown on free speech.

Burundi, a small nation in central Africa's Great Lakes region, emerged in 2006 from a brutal 13-year civil war and its political climate remains fractious ahead of the polls.

- 'Eliminate the opposition' -

President Pierre Nkurunziza, in power since 2005, is expected to run for a third term in office despite opponents' claims that a new mandate would violate Burundi's constitution.

Burundi's last elections in 2010 were boycotted by most opposition parties, and opponents are again accusing the ruling CNDD-FDD party of eliminating dissent.

Patrick Nkurunziza, who is also the youth head of the main opposition coalition, Democratic Alliance for Change (ADC), was arrested on a warrant for "complicity with the armed bandits", police said, without giving further details.

Bamvuginyumvira, a highly respected leader with a reputation for being tough on graft, was Burundi's vice president from 1998 to 2001. He had been touted as one of the most serious potential opposition presidential candidates.

But he was arrested in December 2013 "while having sex... in a house of ill repute" and was later charged with trying to bribe a police officer to escape, charges he has denied. He remains free pending an appeal.

The sentence was condemned by fellow opposition politicians, including Leonce Ngendakumana, Frodebu president and head of the main coalition opposition Democratic Alliance for Change (ADC), who was himself sentenced in September to a year in jail for slander.

"The intentions of Bujumbura are very clear, they want to eliminate the opposition before the 2015 elections," said Ngendakumana, who also remains free from jail pending an appeal.

"The government wants to go alone in the elections," he added.

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