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Uhuru attends regional summit on Burundi crisis in Tanzania

31 May 2015, 17:36

Dar es Salaam - East African leaders opened a summit in Tanzania on Sunday aimed at helping resolve the turmoil in Burundi over President Pierre Nkurunziza's divisive bid to stand for a third term.

The Burundian president, however, failed to turn up: his spokesman said he instead will be pushing ahead with a controversial re-election campaign that has sparked weeks of deadly civil unrest and a regional refugee crisis.

It was during a first crisis meeting on May 13 in Tanzania's economic capital, attended by Nkurunziza, that a top general launched an unsuccessful bid to oust him -- and the president is also seen as being wary of again leaving the country.

"President Nkurunziza will not go to Dar es Salaam," Nkurunziza's spokesman Gervais Abahiro told AFP. "He will be represented there by his foreign minister. He is campaigning and decided to delegate his minister."

The summit has been organised by members of the East African Community (EAC), which groups Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda as well as Burundi.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a key regional player and Burundi's neighbour, was also not attending and sent a minister to represent him, officials in Kigali said. South African President Jacob Zuma, however, has joined the talks.

The crisis in Burundi erupted after the ruling party designated Nkurunziza as its candidate for upcoming elections and for a third consecutive five-year term in office, something that opposition and rights groups say violates the constitution as well as a 2006 peace deal that ended a 13-year civil war.

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in that conflict, marked by massacres between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi communities, and there are fears the current crisis -- which has already prompted 90,000 Burundians to flee the country -- could plunge the country back into open conflict.

The summit is seen as an important opportunity to resolve the crisis, with talks between Nkurunziza's camp and the Burundian opposition deadlocked. However the leaders are expected to stop short of telling the president to back down.

"We are hesitant to demand he withdraws his candidacy, because that could the country to an implosion. Instead we're looking at a call to delay the polls, and for Nkurunziza to give the opposition and independent media an opportunity to freely express themselves," a diplomat close to the talks said.

Burundi's government has insisted that parliamentary elections will take place on June 5 despite the crisis, while a presidential poll is scheduled for June 26.

Asked to rule on Nkurunziza's candidacy, Burundi's constitutional court found in favour of the president, but not before one of the judges also fled the country, claiming that its members were subject to death threats.

Key international donors have withdrawn their support for the polls, as has the influential Catholic Church in Burundi, and on Saturday it emerged that a senior member of the election commission had fled the country -- further plunging preparations for the polls into disarray.

The country's main opposition leader, Agathon Rwasa, also said elections would be a "masquerade" if they go ahead.

Tanzania, which has been openly critical of Nkurunziza, on Friday called on Burundi's government to "listen" to its people.

"Our position is that we call on the Burundian people to remain calm and we urged the government to listen to them," Tanzania's foreign minister, Bernard Membe, told state-run TBC1 television.

UN special envoy Said Djinnit said talks between the Burundian government and opposition had made progress on several issues -- including the reopening of independent media and the release of detainees -- but not on the key issue of a halt to protests in return for Nkurunziza's agreement not to stand again.

He said both sides "have agreed to resume their talks after the summit in Dar es Salaam".

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