Polling stations have opened across Burundi for presidential elections boycotted by the opposition. Explosions and gunfire rocked the capital Bujumbura overnight, as anti-government protests continued.
President Pierre Nkurunziza is widely expected to win a third consecutive term despite the constitution's two-term limit. His decision in April to run again sparked violent clashes in the landlocked central African region.
At least one policeman and a civilian were killed in overnight violence, a presidential official said, after blasts and gunfire had echoed around the capital.
The government has cracked down hard on dissenters and protesters, and an attempted coup in mid-May was quickly quashed by forces loyal to the president. At least 100 people have died since late April. More than 150,000 Burundians have fled the country, many to neighboring Tanzania.
Brushing aside his critics, born-again Christian Nkurunziza has argued that he was appointed by the parliament, not elected, for his first time in 2005, and is thus eligible to be elected once more. Around 3.8 million Burundians are eligible to vote between 6:00 a.m. (0400 UTC) and 4:00 p.m. (1400 UTC).
The election was postponed twice, from June 26 to July 15 and, finally, July 21,under pressure from the African Union, the European Union and the United States. Ugandan mediators had also urged Nkurunziza to hold off on the vote, to no avail.
Last-ditch talks mediated by Uganda had failed at the weekend, prompting the opposition to boycott Tuesday's elections. It leaves the ruling CNDD-FDD and three parties allied with it to compete for the presidency.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, called on all sides to "refrain from any acts of violence that could compromise the stability of Burundi and the region."
During the country's recent parliamentary elections, in which Nkurunziza's ruling party won a majority of the seats, the United Nations observer mission to Burundi said that the polls were not free, credible or inclusive.
In May, the EU suspended its election observer mission to Burundi, citing concerns over a clampdown on independent media, excessive use of force against protesters and the government's intimidation tactics against political and civic opponents.
There are fears that the current violence could spark another civil war in the former Belgian colony. The last one, which ended in 2005, pitted rebel groups of the ethnic Hutu majority, including one led by Nkurunziza, against the army, led at the time by the Tutsi minority.
ng/kms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)