Burundi clashes as African Union warns against election

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Esdras Ndikumana, Aymeric VINCENOT
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Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - At least four people were killed in Burundi Thursday in clashes over the president's bid for a third term, as the African Union warned it was not possible to hold an election under such conditions.

Two were shot by police amid battles between demonstrators, police and government supporters, thought to be members of the ruling party's Imbonerakure militia. The Red Cross said one person had been killed by a grenade, another burned body was seen by an AFP journalist.

At least 17 people have been killed, including protestors and police, and scores wounded since late April, when the ruling CNDD-FDD nominated President Pierre Nkurunziza to stand for reelection, triggering daily protests.

AU Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma warned Thursday the time was not right for elections.

"The environment is not conducive for an election. You can't be going into a country meeting refugees leaving, and saying 'We are going to observe the elections,'" Dlamini-Zuma told Chinese broadcaster CCTV.

"As things stand, I don't even see how elections can take place under these conditions."

Opposition parties and civil society groups say Nkurunziza's third-term quest violates both the constitution, which limits a president to two terms in office, and the accords that ended a 13-year civil war between Tutsis and Hutus in 2006.

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 election.

East African leaders are to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis on May 13 in Tanzania.

On Thursday, one suspected Imbonerakure member narrowly survived being lynched before being rescued by the army, and a second pro-government militia member was left seriously wounded after being attacked by protesters.

He was rescued after the army fired in the air to disperse the angry mob trying to kill him.

- 'Enough crises' -

"What type of election is going to take place under these conditions? As the AU we were planning to send long-term observers but we can't now, we cannot," Dlamini-Zuma added.

The Constitutional Court found in favour of the rebel leader-turned-president in a ruling Tuesday, saying his first presidential term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people.

The court's vice-president had earlier fled the country after refusing to sign the judgement, and claiming judges had been subjected to death threats.

But critics say Nkurunziza's candidacy violates the constitution and the Arusha accords that ended the civil war.

"Other than the Burundi court all interpretation that we get about the constitution is that... really there shouldn’t be a third term," Dlamini-Zuma added.

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

The government and opposition held talks Wednesday to try to defuse the tensions, but street protests continue.

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

Nkurunziza, in a televised speech on Wednesday, said that holding an election was "the only solution" to the crisis triggered by his bid to prolong his 10-year tenure.

But main opposition leader Agathon Rwasa said the crisis had already gone too far and demanded the vote be postponed, arguing the "credibility of the electoral process is already in doubt".

Burundi's foreign ministry has downplayed the violence, saying 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."

Over 35,000 Burundians have fled the country in recent weeks, mostly to Rwanda, and the UN's refugee agency chief Antonio Guterres on Wednesday said he was "extremely worried" by the situation.

"It must stop. We have enough crises in the world," Guterres said.