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Burundi opposition confirms plans to boycott elections

Burundi’s opposition parties announced plans Friday to boycott upcoming elections, saying it was not possible to hold a fair vote following weeks of violence over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid to stay in power.

The opposition groups said they would boycott both parliamentary elections planned for Monday, and a presidential vote set for July 15.

Civil society groups backed the move in a joint statement calling on voters to skip the “sham elections” and urging the international community “not to recognise the validity” of the polls.

“Thousands of Burundians have fled the country, a thousand peaceful demonstrators were arrested, tortured, and are currently languishing in jail,” the statement said.

Burundi was plunged into turmoil in late April when Nkurunziza launched his drive for a third consecutive five-year term, triggering widespread protests and a failed coup.

“All the opposition have unanimously decided to boycott the elections,” said Charles Nditije, a key opposition leader, after a letter signed by representatives of all the country’s opposition groups was handed to the election commission.

Former colonial power Belgium said Friday it would not recognise the results of the elections, saying it was “impossible” that polls could be held in an “acceptable manner.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on Friday for the polls to be delayed, although similar such calls in the past have been dismissed by the government.

In a statement, Ban said Burundi needed to stave off the vote to create “a conducive environment for inclusive, peaceful and transparent elections.”

On Thursday, diplomats said international mediators had suggested holding all the elections on July 31, to allow more time to resolve the crisis.

But the ruling party appeared intent on pressing ahead with the elections, despite the country being mired in its worst crisis since the end of the 1993-2006 civil war.

Many fear a repeat of that conflict, which split the country along ethnic lines, pitting the majority Hutus against the minority Tutsis.

Around 70 people have been killed in weeks of demonstrations that have been brutally suppressed, triggering an exodus of over 120,000 people into neighbouring countries.

– Militia violence –

Opponents say Nkurunziza’s third-term bid is unconstitutional and a violation of a peace deal that ended the civil war.

Criticising the timetable for the polls set by the electoral commission, the opposition said it would not take part until conditions for “peaceful, transparent and inclusive” polls were met.

The ruling CNDD-FDD’s youth wing, the fearsome Imbonerakure whose name means “The Watchmen” or, literally, “Those Who See Far”, has been accused by the UN of waging a campaign of intimidation and violence.

Several top officials — including the deputy vice-president as well as members of the election commission and constitutional court — have fled the poverty-stricken, landlocked country.

In a letter addressed to Nkurunziza, second vice president Gervais Rufyikiri on Thursday urged the president to “put the interests of the Burundian people before your personal interests.”

“Withdraw your presidential bid, because it violates the constitution,” he wrote after fleeing the country.

The opposition said its conditions for fair elections included the “disarmament of the Imbonerakure militia, the security of the electoral process and political leaders and society”, as well as “the reopening of the independent media” and “return of refugees.”

Several journalists covering Burundi’s crisis have complained of being subjected to threats — including death threats — by members of the police and other branches of the security forces.

On Thursday, some 200 students sought refuge from the police at the US embassy.