June 27, 2015 / 6:28 PM / 2 years ago

Gunmen burn election material at Burundi polling station days ahead of vote

BUJUMBURA (Reuters) - Unidentified gunmen set fire to ballot papers and other material in a district polling station northeast of Burundi on Saturday, days before a parliamentary election that opposition parties have said they will boycott.

Election officials said the attack, which comes amid fears of renewed violence in the tiny central African state, appeared to be an isolated incident.

Prosper Ntahorwamiye, spokesman for the electoral commission CENI, said the gunmen attacked the polling station in the Ntega district of Kirundo Province early on Saturday, burning voting materials and ballot boxes ahead of parliamentary elections on Monday.

Ntahorwamiye said preparations for the election elsewhere were going smoothly.

"We have not registered any other similar attack so far to my knowledge," he said.

Opposition parties say their boycott of the election is to protest President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term in a later presidential vote. They have also voiced concerns that voting would not be fair, aggravating Burundi's worst political crisis since a civil war ended in 2005.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday voting should be postponed due to the prevailing political and security environment.

The United States has also said it was putting electoral assistance on hold because Nkurunziza was pressing ahead with an election timetable in the absence of conditions necessary for a credible vote.

Talks on Friday between rival factions failed to reach an agreement on postponing parliamentary and presidential elections so that they could be held simultaneously on a proposed July 30 date.

Burundi slid into turmoil in late April after Nkurunziza said he would seek a third term. Opposition protesters took to the streets for weeks, saying the move violates the constitution and a peace deal that ended the ethnically charged civil war.

A presidential vote is due to take place July 15. It and the parliamentary election have already been pushed back after the protests that followed Nkurunziza's announcement.

Dozens of people have been killed in the unrest and the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said almost 127,000 people had fled to neighboring states, many citing fears about election-related violence.

In announcing the election boycott a group of 17 opposition parties also said they opposed the new vote timetable because it was drawn up without consultation, which the government denies.

The opposition has also repeated calls for the ruling party's Imbonerakure youth wing to be disarmed, echoing comments from Western and African states. The ruling CNDD-FDD denies claims that the youths have been armed.

The government has in the past dismissed boycott threats, saying the opponents were scared of being defeated at the polls.

Reporting by George Obulutsa; Editing by Digby Lidstone

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