Prominent Burundi dissident escapes from prison: police

File photo shows police patrolling a street in Bujumbura on September 26, 2013 (AFP Photo/Esdras Ndikumana)

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - A former head of Burundi's ruling party and leading dissident has escaped from prison where he was serving a 13 year sentence for plotting against state security, police in the central African nation said Monday.

Hussein Radjabu, a leading opponent of President Pierre Nkurunziza and who has been in jail since 2007, "escaped last night between 9:00 pm and midnight along with two others," police spokesman Liboire Bakundukize told AFP.

"He was helped by at least three guards, including the chief warden in charge of the prison's security," he added, admitting that several other prison guards were fast asleep during the escape and that two cars were waiting to pick up Radjabu and his co-conspirators.

"It is certain that this was well-prepared, because the chief warden had taken his own family out of the country some time ago," a senior security source, who asked not to be named, also said.

The escape comes amid mounting political tensions in the run up to presidential elections in June, when the president is expected to seek a third term that opponents say is unconstitutional.

Radjabu took over the leadership of the ruling CNDD-FDD party in 2005, when Nkurunziza first became president.

For the next two years, Radjabu was widely seen as the country's real man in charge, before he was pushed out in 2007 -- which many observers say was because he had emerged as a serious challenger to Nkurunziza. He was arrested in 2007 and sentenced the following year.

According to a source close to the president, Radjabu's escape is a "major blow" for Nkurunziza because of his "ability to cause trouble".

- Political tensions -

The political climate remains fractious in Burundi, a small landlocked nation in central Africa's Great Lakes region, which emerged in 2006 from a brutal 13-year civil war.

Local, parliamentary and presidential polls are set for May and June.

Burundi's constitution allows a president to be elected to two five-year terms, but Nkurunziza argues he was only once directly picked by the people. Parliament chose him for his first term, beginning in 2005.

A dozen top state officials have told AFP his expected candidacy, which has not been officially announced, has already prompted a "real uneasiness" and even "a crisis" as no other clear successor is in view.

Last week Nkurunziza sacked the chief of intelligence, General Godefroid Niyombare and two of his deputies, after sources said he wrote to Nkurunziza asking him not to run again.

The spy chief's sacking is a worrying sign because Burundi's secret services and their extensive powers are a key pillar of Nkurunziza power.

Sources within the CNDD-FDD say the party has been caught up in a "very fierce" fight between rival camps supporting and opposing a third term for the president.

"The signs of a serious internal crisis in CNDD-FDD are obvious, but for now no one can say who will win," said Vital Nshimirimana, co-ordinator of the civil society coalition Forsc.

Political divisions within the party, coupled with a huge demonstration in mid-February in support of the release of a popular government critic and journalist Bob Rugurika have also boosted civil society calls to "stop a third mandate."

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.