Heavy gunfire at Burundi protests as poll delayed

Aymeric Vincenot, Esdras Ndikumana

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Burundian security forces fired shots and tear gas in battles with protesters Wednesday, the latest violence in weeks of anti-government demonstrations, as the presidency delayed elections by over a week.

Amid the street chaos, one soldier was shot dead by police, raising already acute tensions between the two forces. One protester was shot in the leg.

In the capital Bujumbura, thousands defied heavy gunfire from police and government orders to call off their protests, marching through the streets to demand President Pierre Nkurunziza abandon his bid for a third term in power.

One week after a failed coup led by a top general -- which saw soldiers battling each other on the streets -- police were seen returning to try to quash protests. Several fired warning shots, others were seen to sometimes fire at body height.

In recent days, soldiers had been mainly deployed, viewed by many protesters as being more neutral than the much more feared police.

More than 20 people died in weeks of clashes with security forces that halted during the coup attempt, but the protests resumed Monday.

- Protesters undeterred -

Journalists were threatened, with one senior police officer warning reporters to "leave the area or we will shoot you with the protesters."

In the volatile Musaga district, deputy police chief General Godefroid Bizimana offered a stern warning.

"We have decided to restore order... we will occupy all the streets and we will stay there," Bizimana told AFP.

Legislative elections had been set for May 26, but were pushed back 10 days to June 5 following "a proposal from the electoral commission to respond to a request from opposition parties, and finally to answer calls of the region and the international community," presidential official Willy Nyamitwe told AFP.

No decision has been made as to whether a presidential poll set for June 26 would also be delayed. "Wait and see," Nyamitwe said.

The European Union joined the African Union on Tuesday in calling for a delay to the elections, while South Africa's President Jacob Zuma said they should be "postponed indefinitely".

But civil society leader Vital Nshimirimana said the delay was not enough.

"This postponement will have no effect because the fundamental issue remains -- that of the third term of President Pierre Nkurunziza," he told AFP.

"Burundi cannot hold free, transparent and peaceful elections by June 5."

Opposition and rights groups say that Nkurunziza's bid for a third five-year term in power violates the constitution and the terms of the peace deal that brought an end to the country's 13-year civil war in 2006.

But Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader and born-again Christian who believes he has divine backing to lead the country, argues his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people.

- 'Impossible' election conditions -

The election delay was criticised by opposition leaders.

"We are not satisfied by the postponement because the problems of Burundians have not been solved," said Frederic Bamvuginyumvira, vice president of the opposition FRODEBU party.

As well as the fundamental sticking point of Nkurunziza's third term, Bamvuginyumvira said it was "impossible to organise these elections in these conditions", pointing to insecurity and threats from the ruling party's youth wing, accused by rights groups of carrying out reprisal attacks.

Nkurunziza has been accused by rights groups of launching a campaign of repression against opponents and trying to silence independent media since coup leaders admitted defeat on Friday after fierce fighting with loyalist troops.

But the presidency has dismissed such claims, saying it would never carry out "revenge" raids and promising fair trials for those arrested.

More than 100,000 people have fled to neighbouring nations to escape political violence, according to the United Nations. Cholera has broken out in squalid refugee camps in Tanzania.