Burundi at 'crossroads' between peace and violence: UN

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Burundi is at "crossroads" ahead of key elections, the UN rights chief said Wednesday -- between a fair vote that would boost the country and a route back to its "horrendously violent past".

"I will put it bluntly: as I prepared for this mission, I talked to many knowledgeable people, within and outside the UN, in Geneva and New York," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein told reporters in Bujumbura.

"They were all, without exception, alarmed about the direction the country appears to be taking."

Zeid warned that the pro-government militia Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, was threatening the smooth running of the "pivotal elections".

"The root of many people's fears -- and many people in Burundi are very afraid -- is the militia of the Imbonerakure," he said.

"This militia, which openly supports the government, appears to be operating increasingly aggressively and with total impunity."

- Violence and hate speech -

Burundi, a small landlocked nation in central Africa's Great Lakes region, emerged in 2006 from a brutal 13-year civil war, holds general elections in May to elect lawmakers before a presidential poll in June.

Tensions have risen over incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid to seek a third term in office, despite the constitution stating a president can only be elected twice.

With the opposition and civil society groups mobilising, there are worries the landlocked country is on the brink of trouble once again.

"The country is at a crossroads," Zeid said, calling for leaders to follow the path of "free and fair elections which would strengthen and mature Burundi's still fragile democracy."

But he also warned of fears that leaders would take "the path of violence and intimidation aimed at subverting democracy for the sake of gaining or maintaining political power, the path that could potentially lead back to Burundi's deeply troubled, tragic and horrendously violent past."

Opposition politicians and critics say the government is doing all it can to sideline political challengers ahead of the elections, including arrests, harassment and a clampdown on free speech.

- Tensions 'rising sharply' -

Tensions have been "rising sharply" ahead of the polls, with "an increase in politically motivated harassment, intimidation and acts of violence, as well as a reported rise in hate speech," Zeid said.

He urged the government to "clamp down" on the "dangerous" Imbonerakure.

The Imbonerakure have a fearsome reputation: in February, international campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed how security forces and the Imbonerakure executed at least 47 rebels who had surrendered.

Members of the youth wing were said to have beaten to death those prisoners who were not shot, throwing others off a cliff and helping to hide bodies in mass graves.

The government rejected the allegations but set up a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate.

Thousands of people have fled as refugees in recent days into neighbouring Rwanda.

Zeid made no mention of Nkurunziza's expected bid for a third term, but did make an appeal to leaders at the "critical moment" in the country's history.

"I urge the president and the ruling party, as well as opposition leaders, police and military to place the future well-being of the country as a whole before their own personal political desires," he said.

"History -– and possibly national or international courts –- will judge those who kill, bribe or intimidate their way to power," he added.