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Refugees flee Burundi for Rwanda as tensions mount

Thousands of Burundians have fled amid threats of violence in the run-up to the presidential election. Many allege that thugs who support the incumbent, Pierre Nkurunziza, have threatened them.

About 12,000 Burundians fled to Rwanda and 3,000 to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country hit by its own conflicts, since mid-March, UN officials said, amid violence ahead of the June 26 presidential election. Refugees say they fear attacks from a youth group loyal to the CNDD-FDD, the ruling party of President Nkurunziza.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein has said Burundi risks "violence and intimidation aimed at subverting democracy for the sake of gaining or maintaining political power."

Refugees say Burundi's government placed armed forces along the border to prevent people from fleeing. Nkurunziza said citizens had fled from no particular threat, but had left because of hunger.

‘Renewable one time'

The CNDD-FDD will decide Saturday whether to keep incumbent Nkurunziza as its candidate for the June 26 presidential election or choose someone new. According to Burundi's constitution, the president "is elected by universal direct suffrage for a mandate of five years renewable one time."

Nkurunziza first ascended to the presidency in 2005 as parliament's choice to lead a post-civil war government, and only first stood for popular vote in 2010, an election boycotted by the opposition, who alleged fraud. Those who oppose the potential run by the ethnic Hutu president include student and religious groups, civil society organizations and even members of his own party.

"This is a constitutional coup and he and his party will be responsible for the consequences," opposition coalition leader Leonce Ngendakumana said of the potential attempt by Nkurunziza to make the ballot through a technicality. "We will not allow him to trample over the constitution."

International leaders have warned that Nkurunziza's candidacy could aggravate ethnic strife. The refugees headed north to Rwanda and east to the Democratic Republic of Congo testify to the fear that the violence that gripped the country for years until the 2003 Arusha Peace Accord could return.

In Burundi's civil war, Hutu rebels battled a Tutsi-dominated army, resulted in the deaths of more than 250,000 people. On Tuesday, former CNDD-FDD head Hussein Radjabu, who has since fallen out with Nkurunziza, warned that the ruling party may have plotted ethnic killings during the election cycle and even armed and trained the people who would carry out the attacks.

On Wednesday, Rwanda, which saw its share of fighting between the factions in the 1990s, and the UN refugee agency started relocating refugees from the current camps near the border to a camp in Mahama, east of Kigali, Rwanda's capital.

mkg/sms (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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