BUJUMBURA, (Reuters) – One of Burundi’s vice presidents has fled to Belgium, saying he had been threatened after denouncing President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office, an allegation denied by the government.
The president’s decision in April to stand again, branded unconstitutional by opponents, triggered weeks of often violent street protests and Burundi’s worst crisis since an ethnically charged civil war ended in 2005.
“I took the decision to leave the country because I was personally threatened,” second vice president Gervais Rufyikiri told France 24 television from Belgium on Wednesday. “All who are against the third term are threatened. I personally was fearing for my security since I saw some signals.” A presidential spokesman said Rufyikiri, who left last week, had not been threatened.
The United Nations, African and Western nations have called for dialogue to ease the crisis in a region with a history of ethnic conflict. Talks between rival camps so far have shown little sign of bridging differences.
Rallies have petered out but the mood remains tense. Three grenade attacks in the capital on Thursday injured several people, the latest in a series of similar assaults in the past week that have killed four people and injured dozens in Bujumbura and other towns.
The U.S. embassy said students camped out in a nearby construction site had fled after police entered the area on Thursday, and about 100 had taken refuge in an embassy parking area.
“The U.S. Embassy has contacted the government of Burundi and urged them to find a peaceful resolution to the situation,” it said, adding that there had been no violence. The students have been gathering at the site near the embassy for weeks, saying they were seeking protection. U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said he understood the students had started to move from the parking lot, although some may remain there. He said he was not aware that any of them had asked for any protection from the United States.
Kirby declined to comment on the vice president’s flight but said Washington has made clear its expectation for the protection of peaceful protesters.
In May, the vice president of Burundi’s election commission and a senior judge fled the country, amid protests demanding Nkurunziza stand down. Tens of thousands of people have also gone to Rwanda and other neighbouring states to escape the unrest.
Protests against the president erupted on April 26, a day after he announced his bid. Nkurunziza has refused to change tack, citing a court ruling that found he was allowed to seek another term.
Both the presidential vote, now scheduled for July 15, and a parliamentary election now due on June 29 have been delayed by several weeks due to unrest.
A prominent Burundi rights group, led by an activist who opposes the president’s third-term bid, said last week that the death toll since protests erupted was at least 70. The president’s ruling CNDD-FDD party has put it at more than 40.