Burundi crisis talks in bid to end political violence

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Government and opposition rivals in Burundi have held talks on ending deadly demonstrations against a third term bid by the president, officials said Wednesday, as international concern mounted over the crisis.

Protesters have defied calls to end demonstrations, after more than a week of running battles in which over a dozen people have been killed.

UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres said he was "extremely worried" as tens of thousands fled the small central African nation.

President Pierre Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority who has been in power since 2005, has come under intense international pressure to withdraw from the June 26 presidential poll.

"This is a last chance meeting, they have to come up with concrete solutions so that elections can be held in acceptable conditions," a diplomat said of the talks, warning international funding for polls could be cut if a deal was not struck.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday he was "deeply concerned" about Nkurunziza's decision to stand again, which he said "flies directly in the face of the constitution".

The rivals met late Tuesday and talks were expected to continue Wednesday, as protests continued in some areas of the capital.

East African foreign ministers, from neighbouring Rwanda and Tanzania, as well as Kenya and Uganda, have also arrived "to propose ways out of crisis," foreign ministry spokesman Daniel Kabuto said.

Clashes between rival groups took places in parts of the capital Wednesday, with witnesses reporting at least two grenade explosions. Burundi Red Cross spokesman Alexis Manirakiza said 16 people were wounded.

However, Burundi's foreign ministry said that "peace and security reigned" across the country, apart from "a few districts of the capital... shaken by illegal demonstrations and violence triggered by certain political opponents."

The meetings come after furious protesters dismissed a constitutional court ruling that allows Nkurunziza to run - a decision made after the court's vice-president refused to sign the judgement and fled the country instead.

Vice President Prosper Bazombanza has pleaded for protests to end, offering to release demonstrators who have been arrested, lift arrest warrants issued for key civil society leaders and reopen independent radio stations - provided "protests and the insurrection stop".

- 'Enough crises' -

A government source, speaking on condition he not be named, confirmed the government had "agreed to talk with some partners in civil society and the opposition to find a solution."

But one of leaders of the campaign against Nkurunziza's third term said they were doubtful the talks would result in a deal.

"I'm afraid we won't succeed -- because the government does not want to discuss the third mandate of Nkurunziza, and this issue is non-negotiable for us," he said, asking not be named.

Burundi, where a 13-year civil war between Tutsis and Hutus ended only in 2006, has been rocked by violent protests since the CNDD-FDD designated Nkurunziza to stand in what critics say is in defiance of the constitution and the Arusha accords which ended the war.

Nkurunziza's supporters say he is eligible to run again since his first term in office followed his election by parliament -- not directly by the people as the constitution specifies.

Last week the East African Community (EAC) -- the five-nation bloc that includes Burundi -- warned leaders to "ensure that the electoral process does not lead to humanitarian crisis".

Over 30,000 Burundians have already fled into neighbouring nations, mainly into Rwanda.

UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres, speaking in Nairobi, said he was "extremely worried" at the political crisis.

"We thought Burundian refugees were something we would never have to discuss again, unfortunately we are back to having a significant outflow of Burundians," Guterres told reporters. "It must stop. We have enough crises in the world."

Rwanda has warned Burundi it must protect civilians saying it was concerned at "reports" violence was linked to ethnic Hutu rebels of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who fled Rwanda into Democratic Republic of Congo after the 1994 genocide of mainly Tutsi people there.

Rwanda has previously sent troops into DR Congo to target the rebels.

Burundi's foreign ministry dismissed the reports, saying such forces would not be "tolerated on Burundian territory."