Alarm at Burundi violence as forces search for weapons

Nairobi (AFP) - At least two people were killed and a policeman wounded in gun battles in Burundi's capital, police and witnesses said Monday as security forces scoured opposition strongholds for weapons.

Ahead of UN Security Council talks on Burundi's worsening violence later Monday, a senior police officer said "armed criminals" wounded an officer when they hurled a grenade at a patrol in the capital Bujumbura, in the flashpoint opposition district of Musaga.

"Two people, including a student who came out of his house, were killed by the officers firing in all directions," a witness said, who asked not to be named. Two other witnesses confirmed the account.

Burundi has suffered a dramatic rise in killings, arrests and detentions since President Pierre Nkurunziza launched a controversial bid to stand for a third term in April.

The clashes came on the second day of a huge security operation launched after a government weapons amnesty ended on Saturday night. Hundreds of police and soldiers have entered opposition districts searching for weapons.

The operation -- a widely feared crackdown on "enemies of the nation" -- has raised international alarm over fears it could unleash further bloodletting in a country still recovering from a 13-year civil war that ended in 2006.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Monday it is "extremely concerned by the violence" and that it had "set up first-aid posts in several districts" to treat the wounded.

- Hundreds killed or wounded -

"Several hundred people have already been killed or wounded in the violence raging in Bujumbura and surrounding areas," ICRC chief in Burundi Georgios Georgantas said in statement.

"Hundreds more have been detained and several thousand local inhabitants have fled their homes to seek refuge in areas unaffected by the violence."

Gunmen also executed nine people in an attack on a bar late Saturday, hours before the amnesty ended.

Officers have so far displayed around a dozen rifles and grenades they said had been seized in the ongoing raids.

Many residents living in parts of Bujumbura considered opposition strongholds have fled the capital, nearly emptying districts that have seen some of the worst violence in recent months.

The UN Security Council is due to meet Monday to discuss the deteriorating situation, while US special envoy Tom Perriello said he was in Bujumbura in a bid to "engage all sides" on the need to "renounce violence."

But Burundi’s government has dismissed concerns over its deadline to hand in illegal weapons, saying it wanted only to crush "terrorism".

At least 200,000 people have fled the country since April.

The spike in unrest has sparked fears Burundi could slide back into conflict after its 1993-2006 civil war, when some 300,000 people died as rebels from the majority Hutu people clashed with an army dominated by the minority Tutsis.

The country's Senate president Reverien Ndikuriyo recently threatened to "pulverise" regime opponents who do not lay down arms before the Saturday deadline.

"Today, the police shoot in the legs... but when the day comes that we tell them to go to 'work', do not come crying to us," he said.

The loaded term "work" was a euphemism used in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide to describe the mass killings of at least 800,000 mainly Tutsi people by extremist Hutu militias.