BUJUMBURA (Reuters) - Street battles and gunfire erupted again in the capital on Thursday as protesters against President Pierre Nkurunziza rejected his calls for calm in Burundi, an ethnic tinderbox with a history of civil war and genocide.
The Burundi Red Cross said two protesters were killed as soldiers and police fired tear gas and shots in the air in confrontations with scores of young men throwing rocks and burning makeshift barricades in the roads.
That brings to 20 the number of deaths witnessed by the aid group, spokesman Alexis Manirakiza said, during almost a month of marches and a failed coup by Burundians trying to stop Nkurunziza securing what they say is an unconstitutional third term in office.
Another emergency official said the overall toll in the violence, which many fear might re-open old wounds between Burundi’s Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, could be double that.
Nkurunziza, 51, a former sports lecturer, appears unfazed by the crisis, playing in a soccer match with friends on Wednesday shortly before making a televised address to the nation.
In the speech, he stressed the need for national unity, saying Burundi’s bloody past, including a civil war that ended in 2005 after the deaths of 300,000 people, could not be ignored.
“No Burundian wants to revive the tensions of ethnic division or any other nature,” Nkurunziza, who has mixed Hutu-Tutsi parentage, said. “The blood that was spilt in the past has taught us a lesson.”
Protesters rejected his words.
“We don’t consider this a speech for the nation,” 42-year-old Jean-Claude Gakiza told Reuters. “Someone who violates the constitution is against Burundians. All we want now is that he gives up his third term.”
In another area, there were chaotic scenes as soldiers and police tried to restore order.
“You cannot throw stones at police,” one soldier told the protesters. “We are near them. You will hurt us.”
Thursday’s violence followed a night of heavy gunfire in the restive neighborhood of Musaga, where residents spoke of hours of running battles between police and gangs of youths.
“There was shooting through the night,” said Musaga resident Bosco, 28, who did not want to give his last name.
Pascal Nyabenda, chairman of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, dismissed the marchers as paid thugs.
“Those are youth who are paid,” he said. “It’s like a job.” He did not say where the purported funding came from.
With more than 110,000 refugees in neighboring Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania, where at least 33 have died of cholera, regional leaders have been calling for calm and restraint on all sides but to little effect.
South Africa, which played a central role in brokering the 2005 peace, said this week the June 26 presidential election at the heart of the crisis should be postponed indefinitely.
So far, Nkurunziza’s only concession has been to postpone next week’s local and parliamentary elections to June 5.
He argues that his ambitions do not break a two-term limit in the constitution as his first term, in which he was appointed by parliament rather than directly elected, does not count.
Reporting by Edmund Blair; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Janet Lawrence