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Burundi fears as government readies to crush resistance

06 November 2015, 18:52

Nairobi - Inflammatory language and divisive rhetoric: Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza's determination to end months of protest and opposition to his rule has sparked deep concern among analysts, diplomats and international powers.

With almost daily battles between gunmen and security forces, Nkurunziza this week issued an ultimatum to gunmen to lay down their weapons by Saturday night.

Tensions are rising, partly driven by government speeches loaded with "dangerous" and "war-like" rhetoric with ethnic overtones, said a Burundian academic.

Burundi was slowly getting back on track after its 1993-2006 civil war, which killed 300,000 people.

Then, the battlefields were green hills and farmlands where rebels from the majority Hutu people clashed with an army dominated by the minority Tutsi.

Recently, the central African nation has seen months of violence triggered by Nkurunziza's successful bid to win a third term in office, with the government calling the gangs of gunmen "criminals".

The United Nations has also warned that Burundi risks sliding back into conflict after a dramatic rise in killings, arrests and detentions.

The UN Security Council will meet on Monday to discuss the situation, France said on Friday, with foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal denouncing the wave of "hate speech" threatening to inflame the country.

Last week, Senate president Reverien Ndikuriyo threatened to "pulverise" opponents who did not lay down arms.

"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 term "work" is loaded in the region, a euphemism used in neighbouring Rwanda's 1994 genocide when at least 800,000 mostly Tutsi people were killed by Hutu militia.

"The language is unambiguous to Burundians and chillingly similar to that used in Rwanda in the 1990s before the genocide," the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank warned in a report issued late Thursday.

Vice-President Gaston Sindimwo has repeated warnings with the simple threat: "Holiday time is over."

The opposition has denounced the "messages of hate and division". Jeremiah Minani, head of the CNARED coalition, set up to oppose Nkurunziza's third term, warned that "genocide is on its way".

But a senior police officer dismissed the warnings.

"It's a lie. Nobody is preparing a genocide," the officer told AFP, but added police would do "anything to defend the democracy for which we have shed our blood."

While the crisis is largely political, ethnic tensions are not far below the surface.

Opponents say Nkurunziza's re-election breached the terms of the Arusha peace deal that paved the way to end civil war.

They now fear a government crackdown when Nkurunziza's amnesty expires, after which police will be let loose to "use all means".

"Burundi again faces the possibility of mass atrocities and civil war," the ICG warned in a report issued late Thursday.

"Escalating violence, increasingly hardline rhetoric and the continued stream of refugees (more than 200,000) indicate that divisions are widening, and the 'national dialogue' is doing little to relieve the mounting tensions," the group said."

Some 200 people have been killed in Burundi since violence broke out in April, according to the UN.

International leaders are concerned.

"The United States expresses its extreme concern that the five-day ultimatum issued by the president will trigger violence beginning this coming weekend," US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power said in a statement on Thursday.

Power said the government, militias and opposition forces were resorting to "dangerous, irresponsible rhetoric" that risks inciting even greater violence.

African Union Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on Wednesday warned the crisis might "create conditions for more instability, with devastating consequences for Burundi and the whole region."

Residents of some largely opposition neighbourhoods of the capital Bujumbura have fled fearing violence.

"We prefer to leave.. because our leaders want revenge," said a mother of four, leaving the city's Mutakura district.

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