Grenades, voter material torched as Burundi readies for polls

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Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Attackers in Burundi set fire to election material and hurled grenades, officials said Saturday, further escalating tension two days before key polls in the central African nation, amid UN calls for postponement.

The opposition on Friday said it was boycotting polls claiming it is not possible to hold a fair vote after weeks of violence over President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid to stay in power. Parliamentary and local elections are set to be held on Monday, and a presidential vote on July 15.

National electoral commission officials confirmed the attack in the northeast Ntega district, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the capital Bujumbura, but there was no indication who was responsible.

"A group of unidentified young people took advantage of the police who were sleeping on duty and torched a building housing election material," local governor Reverien Nzigamasabo told AFP on Saturday. "Part of the ballot boxes and voting booths were burned, but people were able to save the rest."

Soldiers fired shots at the gang to chase them away, police said.

Two grenades were also hurled overnight Friday in Bujumbura, witnesses said, but unlike a string of similar attacks, no one was hurt. Gunfire was also heard in the capital overnight, as it has been in recent days.

Around 70 people have been killed in weeks of demonstrations and a failed coup that have been brutally suppressed, triggering an exodus of over 127,000 people into neighbouring countries.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday called for elections to be delayed after the opposition said they would not take part in the polls, which come as Burundi faces its worst crisis since its civil war ended nine years ago.

- Weeks of protests -

Burundi's UN Ambassador Albert Shingiro however told the 15-member Security Council the polls would go ahead as planned.

"The government simply cannot accept to tumble head-first into an institutional vacuum, into a chasm," he said late Friday.

"Ninety-five percent of the population wants to move forward to the election and not remain hostage to this radical minority," he said, accusing the opposition of acting "like spoiled brats" who are never satisfied.

Burundi was plunged into turmoil in late April when Nkurunziza launched his drive for a third consecutive five-year term, triggering widespread protests.

Opponents say his bid for another term is unconstitutional and violates a peace accord that paved the way to end 13 years of civil war in 2006.

"All the opposition have unanimously decided to boycott the elections," said Charles Nditije, a key opposition leader, after a letter signed by all the country's opposition groups was handed to the election commission.

Civil society groups backed the move in a joint statement calling on voters to skip the "sham elections" and urging the international community "not to recognise the validity" of the polls.

"Thousands of Burundians have fled the country, a thousand peaceful demonstrators were arrested, tortured, and are currently languishing in jail," the statement said.

Former colonial power Belgium has said it would not recognise the results of the elections, saying it was "impossible" that the polls could be held in an "acceptable manner".

Criticising the timetable for the polls set by the electoral commission, the opposition said it would not take part until conditions for "peaceful, transparent and inclusive" polls were met.

The ruling CNDD-FDD's youth wing, the fearsome Imbonerakure whose name means "The Watchmen" or, literally, "Those Who See Far", has been accused by the UN of waging a campaign of intimidation and violence.

Several top officials -- including the deputy vice-president as well as members of the election commission and constitutional court -- have fled the poverty-stricken, landlocked country.

In a letter addressed to Nkurunziza, second vice president Gervais Rufyikiri on Thursday urged the president to "put the interests of the Burundian people before your personal interests."

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