Burundi counts votes after controversial presidential polls

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Burundi counted votes Wednesday a day after a presidential election marred by violence and international condemnation that is expected to see incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza win a controversial third term.

Results from the polls, which were condemned as illegitimate by the international community after sparking months of deadly violence that forced tens of thousands to flee the country, are expected on Friday.

The government dismissed criticism of the poll after the United States, European Union and former colonial power Belgium said the elections were not credible.

"Turnout is largely satisfactory, and the conduct of this election has convinced even the undecided that Burundi has reached a certain maturity in carrying out elections that are free, transparent and calm," Willy Nyamitwe, Nkurunziza's chief communications advisor, told French radio RFI.

The US on Tuesday said the government's refusal to delay the vote threatened its legitimacy and risked "unravelling the fragile progress" made by the peace deal that ended more than a decade of civil war and ethnic massacres in 2006.

In Bujumbura, the epicentre of three months of anti-government protests where gunfire and grenade blasts could be heard as polls opened.

The African Union said Wednesday it had begun deployment of military and human rights observers.

The AU teams are aimed to "prevent an escalation of violence in Burundi and to facilitate the completion of efforts to resolve the serious crisis" in the country, the pan-African bloc said in a statement.

- Months of violence -

Anti-Nkurunziza protests have been violently repressed, leaving at least 100 people dead since late April.

Many opponents have also fled -- joining an exodus of more than 150,000 ordinary Burundians who fear their country may again be engulfed by widespread violence.

Military experts will help monitor the "disarmament of militias and other armed groups", the AU added.

The Imbonerakure, which means "those who see far", are the ruling party's youth wing, have been branded a militia by the United Nations.

AU human rights monitors will "report on possible violations of human rights."

AU Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma urged "to put the interest of their country above partisan considerations."

Nkurunziza's CNDD-FDD party scored a widely expected landslide win in last month's parliamentary polls that were boycotted by the opposition.

Electoral Commission president Pierre-Claver Ndayicariye said around 74 percent of the country's 3.8 million registered voters cast their ballot on Tuesday, comparable to last month's general elections, despite a boycott from opposition lawmakers.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged calm, calling on all sides to "refrain from any acts of violence that could compromise the stability of Burundi and the region."

- 'Facade of pluralism' -

The 51-year-old president -- a former rebel, born-again Christian and football fanatic -- is facing no serious competition, but critics say a win by the incumbent will be a hollow victory, leaving him ruling over a deeply divided nation.

Although eight candidates were on the ballot paper, most withdrew from the race and those who remained were not seen as having a chance as the unrest and the closure of most independent media stopped them campaigning.

The International Crisis Group think-tank has warned that the situation has all the ingredients to plunge Burundi into civil war.

"Despite a facade of pluralism, this is an election with only one candidate, where Burundians already know the outcome," the ICG's Thierry Vircoulon said.

In mid-May, rebel generals attempted to overthrow Nkurunziza in a coup. After that failed they launched a rebellion in the north of the country.

Poor and landlocked, Burundi is in the heart of central Africa's troubled Great Lakes region.

Analysts say renewed conflict in the country could reignite ethnic Hutu-Tutsi violence and bring another humanitarian disaster on the region.

The last civil war in Burundi left at least 300,000 people dead.

UN electoral observers -- some of the few international monitors in Tuesday's poll -- said the last round of voting took place in a "climate of widespread fear and intimidation".

The presidential election is likely to be seen in the same light, diplomats said, meaning Nkurunziza -- whose nation is heavily aid-dependent -- will probably also face international isolation.