BUJUMBURA, Burundi — Burundi’s defense minister said Saturday the army will remain neutral amid the street protests stemming from the president’s controversial bid for a third term.
Maj. Gen. Pontien Gaciyubwenge told a news conference that “all political actors” in Burundi should not go down the path of violence, according to local media.
In street protests since Sunday, the military has been acting as a buffer between protesters and local police, who are accused of sometimes using live ammunition against the protesters. Tear gas has also been used to break up crowds.
Burundi’s popular Radio Isanganiro quoted Gaciyubwenge as saying the military should behave in ways that “conform to the spirit” of the constitution as well as the Arusha Agreements that ended a civil war in which more than 250,000 people died.
The fighting between Hutu rebels and a Tutsi-dominated army ended in 2003. The Central African nation’s war began in October 1993, after Burundi’s first democratically elected president was assassinated.
Although the current conflict is political, some observers are concerned about the risk of igniting ethnic tensions.
“The current institutions are trying to bury the Arusha accords. This attitude leads us directly to hell,” said former President Domitien Ndayizeye, who was in office from 2003 to 2005.
At least six people have been killed in clashes with the police, according to the Burundi Red Cross. A funeral for one was held Saturday.
Protesters are vowing to return to the streets Monday to keep up the pressure on President Pierre Nkurunziza.
On Friday three people died in grenade attacks in Burundi, according to Pierre Nkurikiye, a spokesman for the ministry of public security. Seventeen people were wounded in the grenade attacks Friday night, he said.
Police have arrested two suspects but the motive of the attacks is not known, said Nkurikiye.
Burundi is one of the world’s poorest countries and the poverty and the absence of freedom could lead to a revolt, he said.
Nkurunziza, a Hutu, was selected president by Parliament in 2005. He was re-elected unopposed in 2010. His supporters say he can seek re-election again because he was voted in by lawmakers for his first term, and was not popularly elected.
U.S. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski traveled to Burundi on Wednesday and told reporters the government has been warned of “real consequences” if the crisis escalates.
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