BUJUMBURA (Reuters) - European nations have suspended some aid to Burundi, officials said on Monday, cranking up international pressure on the donor-reliant African nation over a crackdown on protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s quest for a third term of office.
Responding to violence that has killed at least 19 people during more than two weeks of unrest, the European Union and Belgium individually halted aid earmarked for supporting elections, saying that the conditions were not right for a fair vote, diplomats said.
The Netherlands said it was still reviewing its commitment to Burundi, after a diplomat had said it was withholding some aid.
The government says it is committed to free and fair polls.
Belgium said it was also halting some aid intended for the police, who have fired tear gas, water cannon and, according to protesters, even live rounds. Police deny the accusation.
About 300 people protested on Monday in Musaga, a district of the capital that has seen regular protests by demonstrators who say Nkurunziza’s election bid violates the constitution and a peace deal that ended a civil war in 2005.
“Let us pass into Bujumbura city to tell Nkurunziza that he is not allowed to run for a third term,” protesters shouted, trying to move to the city center. They were blocked by police.
A constitutional court has ruled the president can run as his first term, when he was picked by parliament not elected by popular vote, does not count. Critics say the court is biased.
The violence has plunged the nation into its worst crisis since the end of the civil war that pitted rebels from the majority Hutu ethnic group against minority Tutsis, who once led the army. The military is now a mixed force.
The police crackdown on protests has provoked Western rebukes of a nation which relies on aid to meet half its budget. European states are the biggest contributors to the budget, while the United States provides support to the army.
“We call for an immediate end to the use of violent force by police against peaceful protests and the political intimidation, threats, and violence by all armed militia,” U.S. Ambassador Dawn Liberi said at a meeting of the government and diplomats.
The U.S. government has said it is worried about reports that Imbonerakure, the youth wing of Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD party, had been armed, an allegation the government denies.
More than 50,000 people have fled to neighboring states. Many say they were threatened by Imbonerakure and fear violence.
The EU envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes region, Koen Vervaeke, said the 28-nation bloc had disbursed 6 million euros ($6.70 million) out of 8 million euros designated for elections but was withholding the rest.
“Today it is out of question to release the 2 million euros unless conditions for a free, peaceful and credible election are secured,” he told a news conference in Bujumbura.
Elections include a May 26 parliamentary vote and June 26 presidential poll. The opposition have called for a delay.
Former colonial power Belgium said it had given half of the 4 million euros it had allocated for the polls but would retain the rest. A diplomat said the Netherlands was following suit.
“It is just a suspension; our partners are asking the government to organize free, credible and transparent elections,” Foreign Minister Laurent Kavakure told Reuters, adding the government was committed to delivering that.
Belgium said in a statement it would also pull out of a 5 million euro police cooperation deal, funded jointly with the Netherlands.
A spokesman for the Dutch Foreign Ministry, Herman van Gelderen, said the Netherlands is awaiting the outcome of Wednesday’s East Africa Community talks before making a decision, but he called for an open vote.
“There must be free and fair elections that are open to all parties,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
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Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Nairobi, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Heavens/Hugh Lawson