May 19, 2015 / 7:34 AM / 2 years ago

Burundi police fire teargas, beat anti-president protesters

BUJUMBURA (Reuters) - Burundi police on Tuesday fired teargas and beat protesters demanding President Pierre Nkurunziza end his bid for a third term next month, in a resurgence of unrest that has stoked fears of ethnic conflict in Africa’s Great Lakes.

A policeman detains a protester during a protest against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term in Bujumbura, Burundi May 19, 2015. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

A Reuters photographer said at least eight of the flag-waving and chanting demonstrators were dragged off by police. Some in the crowd responded by pelting officers with stones and rocks.

Separately, shots were fired at the offices of the European Union’s representative in Bujumbura, prompting the mission to demand the government step up its security. The EU gave no more details.

Paris deployed 15 gendarmes to bolster security at its diplomatic outpost in the city, a French diplomatic source said.

Rights groups say at least 20 people have died in three weeks of clashes between security forces and protesters who say Nkurunziza’s ambitions violate the constitution and a peace deal that ended an ethnically fueled civil war in 2005.

Laying the same charges against the president, a group of renegade generals tried and failed to overthrow him last week. The government said late on Monday it would treat any future demonstrators as accomplices in the failed putsch.

But crowds gathered again in the suburb of Nyakabiga on Tuesday, shouting: “We will not stop until he gives up the third term.”

The longer unrest continues the more chance that a conflict which up until now has been largely a struggle for power reopens old wounds in a region with a history of mass ethnic killing.

As regional leaders scrambled to break the impasse and contain a potential humanitarian crisis, South Africa - one of the main peace-brokers over a decade ago - said the presidential election scheduled for June 26 should be postponed indefinitely until political stability had returned.

“NO TO COUP”

More than 110,000 people have fled to neighboring Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania, where cholera has been found among thousands of refugees sleeping rough on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, waiting evacuation by boat.

The failed coup has heightened fears the crisis in the landlocked nation of 10 million could split the army, the central pillar of unity after the civil war, which had largely pitted majority Hutus against minority Tutsis.

Until recently, Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader with mixed parentage, had also been seen as bridge between the main groups in a region that has been an ethnic powder keg for the past half century.

Neighboring Rwanda, which shares a similar ethnic mix, suffered a genocide in 1994 in which 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were killed.

The protesters in Bujumbura stressed they were against both Nkurunziza and the attempted coup, and denied any links with the plotters.

“No to the coup, and no to the third term. We will continue until he says no to the third term,” one of the demonstrators, who gave his name as Jean-Paul, told Reuters. He did not wish to give his last name, for fear of reprisals.

The government said on Tuesday it had no desire for extra-judicial vengeance.

“The people implicated in the disgraceful attempt to overthrow legitimate institutions will be arrested and prosecuted by justice, and only by justice,” it said.

Nkurunziza says his participation in elections would not violate the constitution as his first term did not count, because he was appointed by parliament, not chosen by a popular vote.

Additional reporting by Duncan Miriri in Nairobi and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Alison Williams

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