By Michelle Nichols
BUJUMBURA (Reuters) - Two former Burundi presidents pleaded for the United Nations Security Council on Thursday to back the deployment of international troops to the African state gripped by political violence because it "runs the risk of becoming another Rwanda"
Diplomats of the 15-member council arrived in Burundi's capital Bujumbura on Thursday evening for its second visit to the tiny landlocked state in less than a year, where fears of an ethnic war have also led to an economic crisis.
The Security Council is due to meet President Pierre Nkurunziza on Friday. Violence broke out after Nkurunziza's decision in April to seek a third term. His opponents said the move was unconstitutional but he went on to win a disputed election in July.
Hundreds of pro-government protesters lined the road from the airport to the U.N. envoys' hotel, welcoming them with drumming and dancing and signs with messages such as: "Burundi is sovereign, stop interfering in Burundi home affairs."
There were several grenade explosions on Thursday in Bujumbura, but no further details were known, diplomats and police said. Since April, at least 439 people have been killed and the number might be "considerably higher," the United Nations said. Some 232,000 people have fled the country.
The envoys, led by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and senior Angolan and French diplomats, met Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, Burundi's president from 1976-87 and Domitien Ndayizeye, president from 2003-05.
Bagaza said armed outside support was necessary to reassure Burundians. Both former presidents called on the Security Council to back such a move.
"Otherwise we run the risk of becoming another Rwanda," Bagaza said. "We already have a heavy death toll, a great deal of destruction to the economy."
The African Union said in December it was ready to send 5,000 peacekeepers to protect civilians in Burundi, but Nkurunziza has rejected the mission and said that Burundians would fight against any peacekeepers.
The violence is being closely watched in a region scarred by the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, which killed more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Burundi and Rwanda have the same ethnic mix, about 85 percent Hutus and 15 percent Tutsis.
A 12-year civil war in Burundi, which ended in 2005, pitted a Tutsi-led army against Hutu rebel groups. The Burundi government has said there is no risk of a return to the ethnic bloodletting of the past.
Ndayizeye told the Security Council that Nkurunziza's government was "a dictatorial regime which is imposed only through force" and that the crisis "is leading us over the abyss economically speaking."
Burundi's cabinet passed a 2016 budget that slashes public spending by 16 percent and expects foreign aid to almost halve as relations with donors have soured during the turmoil. Burundi relies on the European Union for about half its budget and Brussels has partially suspended new aid over the crisis.
Before the U.N. envoys arrived, a group of soldiers and police who defected from the government announced they had formed an official rebel movement, The Republican Force of Burundi. Godefroid Niyombare, a former major general who lead a failed coup attempt in May, has been appointed its leader.
The rebels welcomed international mediation but also called for Burundians to support their fight against Nkurunziza.
(Editing by Drazen Jorgic and Raissa Kasolowsky; editing by Larry King and Grant McCool)