Burundian army battles gunmen near Rwanda border

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Burundian soldiers clashed with gunmen Friday in a northern region near Rwanda, a local official and the military said, in the latest violence ahead of controversial elections due next week.

The crisis in Burundi revolves around President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid to stand for a third straight five-year term, which his opponents say is unconstitutional and violates a peace deal that ended a dozen years of civil war in 2006.

Over 70 people have been killed in more than two months of protests, with over 158,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries, according to the UN.

Army spokesman Colonel Gaspard Baratuza reported shooting and "a situation of insecurity" near Rugazi, 140 kilometres (85 miles) north of the capital Bujumbura, in a thickly forested area. He said soldiers had been sent there to investigate.

"An armed group attacked an army position... we heard shooting and the explosions of heavy weapons," a local government official said.

There are fears the current political crisis could plunge the poor, landlocked country back into civil war.

Presidential polls are due on July 15 followed by senatorial elections on July 24, but the five-nation East African Community (EAC) on Monday called for elections to be delayed by two weeks, to July 30, in order to allow time for mediation.

- Election delay? -

Burundi's government said Friday it backed regional calls to postpone controversial polls, but only by a few days, saying it had asked the election commission to implement the delay.

Under Burundi's constitution, polls must be held at least one month before the presidential mandate expires on August 26 with government spokesman Philippe Nzobanariba warning of "institutional vacuum and chaos" should it happen after that.

The election commission has proposed July 21 or 22 as suitable dates, sources said.

Parliamentary polls on June 29 were boycotted by the opposition and internationally condemned.

The UN electoral observer mission said the polls took place "in a climate of widespread fear and intimidation".

Nkurunziza's ruling party swept to an expected overwhelming victory.

The election commission said the ruling CNDD-FDD party won 77 out of 100 elected seats in parliament, with two more seats going to its ally UPRONA.

Despite the opposition boycott and calls on its supporters not to vote, the coalition Independents of Hope group of Agathon Rwasa and Charles Nditije won 11 seats. The election commission said overall turnout was 74 percent.

The country has also been left without most of its independent media outlets, after several radio stations were attacked and destroyed in fighting during an attempted coup against Nkurunziza in May.