BUJUMBURA, Burundi — A senior U.S. diplomat told Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza on Thursday that the East African country risks boiling over if it smothers political opposition, as protests against the president entered a fifth day.
The Burundi Red Cross said 15 protesters were injured during clashes with police Thursday. Some suffered bullet wounds, one activist said. Late in the day, a soldier was killed by unknown gunmen, who were arrested.
Witnesses said protesters in several suburbs of the capital, Bujumbura, spent most of the day in a standoff with police, using burning tires, sticks and stones to barricade roads.
Tom Malinowski, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, arrived Wednesday to try to help defuse the country’s biggest crisis in years, set off by Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term in office.
Protesters say the president is violating the constitution and jeopardizing a peace deal that has kept ethnic tensions in check since a civil war ended in 2005. The president says the protests are an “insurrection.”
The constitution and peace accord limit the president to two terms in office, but Nkurunziza’s supporters say he can run again because his first term, when he was picked by lawmakers and not elected, does not count.
After meeting with Nkurunziza, Malinowski told reporters he had urged him to allow peaceful criticism and room for political opposition before the June 26 vote.
“I left the president with the thought that this country, with its very complicated and difficult history, is like a boiling pot, and that if you try to put a lid on that pot, it doesn’t stop boiling. It risks boiling over,” Malinowski said.
The crisis is being closely watched in a region scarred by the 1994 genocide that killed more than 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, in neighboring Rwanda. Burundi, like Rwanda, is divided between ethnic Tutsis and Hutus.
Nkurunziza told Malinowski that protests against him were illegal but that the opposition would not be restricted, according to presidential spokesman Gervais Abayeho.The president said “political space would be respected, and there is no restriction whatsoever to anybody who is engaged in political competition. Everyone has a role to play,” Abayeho said.
The protesters have vowed to continue rallies against Nkurunziza.
One soldier was shot dead in an attack by six unknown gunmen riding in a pickup truck, witnesses said. The assailants were arrested, and the army, which did not have any immediate comment, had to prevent angry protesters from grabbing them.
Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Wednesday that Nkurunziza had violated the peace deal that ended the civil war by seeking a third term. Washington was deeply troubled by arrests of protesters and the shutting down of independent media, she added.