Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Thousands marched through Burundi's capital Thursday in one of the largest demonstrations in recent years after the release of a popular journalist and government critic from jail, months ahead of key elections.
Vast crowds singing and dancing filled the streets of Bujumbura a day after Bob Rugurika, director of the popular independent African Public Radio (RPA), was released from prison on bail.
There was no official figure for how many took to the streets, but residents said the mass rally of tens of thousands was the largest they could remember.
"I'm 50 and I have never seen such a crowd in the streets," said Fabian, a teacher, saying the only event comparable in size he could remember were celebrations for Burundi's first elected president Melchior Ndadaye in 1993.
The arrest of Rugurika for "complicity" in the murder of three Italian nuns sparked protests by civil rights activists and fellow journalists, who have accused the government of doing all it can to sideline political challengers ahead of elections in May and June, including arrests, harassment and a clampdown on free speech.
The radio is seen as close to the political opposition, and often interviews those who say they are victims of injustice or discrimination.
"I have no words to thank the Burundian population," Rugurika said in radio broadcast, after entering the capital followed by supporters crammed into dozens of cars and hundreds on motorbikes.
"Thanks to your support, your commitment... I'm free at last."
- 'Fed-up' with government -
The interior ministry had initially banned demonstrations but the huge crowds took police by surprise, and they pulled back to leave marchers to continue peacefully.
Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group (ICG) said the demonstration showed that people in the capital were "fed up with those in power and their methods."
Rugurika was arrested on January 21 after broadcasting the purported confession of a man claiming he was one of the killers.
A court on Wednesday granted him bail of 15 million Burundi francs ($9,500, 8,400 euros), but his lawyer Lambert Nigarura said there was a need for a proper investigation into the "real murderers of the three nuns."
For broadcasting the alleged confession, Rugurika was charged with complicity in the murders, "breach of public solidarity" and disclosing confidential information regarding a case.
The supposed confession contradicted a police account of the crime and implicated the security services.
He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Burundi, a small landlocked nation in central Africa's Great Lakes region, emerged in 2006 from a brutal 13-year civil war. The political climate remains fractious ahead of local, parliamentary and presidential polls beginning in May.
The three Roman Catholic nuns, aged between 75 and 83, were murdered at a convent north of Bujumbura in September.
Rights groups have warned of growing fears of the risk of violence ahead of elections, with a string of attacks including a five-day battle last month between the army and rebels.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, in power since 2005, is expected to run for a third term in office despite opponents' claims that a new mandate would violate Burundi's constitution.