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Deadly Burundi protests as army urges unity after coup bid

Protesters in Burundi battled police on Thursday in violent anti-government demonstrations against a third term bid for power by the president, as security forces tried to stem unrest a week after a failed coup.

At least two protesters were shot dead and eight were wounded in clashes with police in the capital Bujumbura, the Red Cross said, the latest victims of the unrest triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term, in which more than 20 people have died.

Heavy gunfire was heard all day in suburbs of the capital.

The crisis, which began in late April after the ruling party nominated Nkurunziza to stand again in the June presidential election, deepened last week when a top general staged a failed coup attempt.

Newly-appointed Defence Minister Emmanuel Ntahonvukiye called for unity in the wake of the abortive coup, which was crushed by loyalist forces after street fighting between rival factions.

“The survival of Burundi as a nation depends on the cohesion of the army,” a military statement read, warning that, should the army splinter, it would result in a situation seen in war-torn Somalia.

– ‘Our right to demonstrate’ –

Nkurunziza, in an address to the nation late Wednesday, said most of the central African country was secure, and that the upcoming parliamentary and presidential votes would be peaceful.

“Peace and security reign over 99.9 percent of Burundian territory and population are going about normally in their activities,” Nkurunziza said in a broadcast on state radio.

Shooting was heard overnight in the flashpoint Musaga district of the capital, where police have vowed to end protests.

And hundreds of protesters returned to the streets Thursday, as they have done for almost a month, chanting anti-government slogans and singing.

Most of the demonstrations took place in Bujumbura’s suburbs. One group of protesters briefly reached the symbolic city centre, only to be swiftly chased away by the police.

“It is our right to demonstrate our opposition to a third term of Nkurunziza, and we will continue to shout loudly despite the police,” yelled Sandrine, a 20-year-old demonstrator.

Opposition and rights groups say that Nkurunziza’s bid for a third five-year term violates the constitution and the terms of the peace deal that brought an end to a 13-year civil war in 2006.

Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader and born-again Christian who believes he has divine backing to lead, argues his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people.

– Refugees told ‘come back home’ –

More than 100,000 people have fled the violence to neighbouring countries, according to the United Nations. Cholera has broken out in squalid refugee camps in Tanzania, killing at least 27 people.

Nkurunziza has urged the refugees to “come back home”, assuring them they face no security threat.

On Wednesday, his office announced that parliamentary polls set for May 26 had been postponed to June 5, but there has been no mention of rescheduling the June 26 presidential election.

Rights groups accuse Nkurunziza of launching a crackdown on opponents and independent media in the wake of the failed coup.

The presidency has dismissed the claims.

In the days immediately after the coup bid, soldiers rather than police were mainly deployed against protesters, being seen by many as more neutral. However, this week the police have returned to fend off the demonstrators.

Some activists accuse the police of backing the ruling party’s Imbonerakure youth group, a powerful force described by the UN as a militia and accused of a string of abuses and killings.

Burundi’s government appears increasingly isolated diplomatically. Belgium, the former colonial power, threatened Thursday to end assistance to the country if Nkurunziza presses ahead with a third term.