EU suspends €2m aid to Burundi amid violent crackdown on political protests

Aid kept back amid calls for transparent and peaceful elections as unrest over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for third term forces tens of thousands to flee

The EU is withholding €2m ($2.3m) of aid to Burundi amid increasing concern over the government’s violent crackdown on protesters opposed to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s attempts to secure a third term in office.

The president’s decision to try to extend his decade-long rule has prompted weeks of unrest that have killed at least 19 people and forced tens of thousands to flee to neighbouring countries. His opponents argue the move is a clear violation of the constitution, which limits a president to two terms in office.

The EU envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes region, Koen Vervaeke, said that although the union had disbursed 6m ($6.7m) of the 8m designated for elections, it had decided to withhold the rest until Nkurunziza heeded calls for a transparent poll.

“Today it is out of question to release the €2m unless conditions for a free, peaceful and credible election are secured,” he told a news conference in the capital, Bujumbura, on Monday.

Burundi’s former colonial power, Belgium, has also announced a suspension of electoral aid, opting to withhold half of the €4m it had set aside for the polls.

Belgium said it would also pull out of a €5m police cooperation deal, funded jointly with the Netherlands. Police in Burundi have been accused of using live rounds on protesters, as well as tear-gas and water cannon – a charge they deny.

A spokesman for the Dutch foreign ministry, Herman van Gelderen, said the Netherlands was awaiting the outcome of a meeting of the East African Community in Tanzania on Wednesday before making a decision, but echoed calls for an open vote.

“There must be free and fair elections that are open to all parties,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

The Burundian foreign minister, Laurent Kavakure, said the government was already taking steps to improve the situation, adding: “We are determined to create the conditions for free, transparent and peaceful elections.”

Under the current election schedule, a parliamentary vote will be held on 26 May, with a presidential poll a month later. The opposition has called for a postponement.

The crackdown on protests has drawn rebukes from many of the western nations that provide the aid on which Burundi relies for half its budget. European states are the biggest contributors, while the US provides support to the army.

Dawn Liberi, the US ambassador to Burundi, told a meeting of the government and diplomats: “We call for an immediate end to the use of violent force by police against peaceful protests and the political intimidation, threats, and violence by all armed militia.”

The US has said it is worried about reports that the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD party, had been armed, an allegation the government denies.

The violence has plunged Burundi into its worst crisis since the end of its 12-year civil war in 2006. The conflict, between ethnic Tutsis and Hutus, left around 300,000 people dead.

Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority, has so far defied international pressure to withdraw from the election.

A constitutional court has ruled the president can run because his first term – which saw him picked by parliament rather than elected by popular vote – does not count. Critics say the court is biased.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that police fired guns and teargas towards protesters throwing stones in a suburb of Bujumbura. At least two police officers fired guns towards lines of demonstrators during clashes in Butarere district, a witness said. A police spokesman had no immediate comment. There were also reports of a grenade being thrown in a separate district, killing two people.

The latest unrest has seen more than 50,000 people flee Burundi since early April, with at least half of them going to Rwanda, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

Almost 18,000 have fled to Tanzania and 8,000 to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some of the refugees now arriving in Rwanda say they are running from the Imbonerakure.

“The Imbonerakure came to our neighbourhood to say that those who were against the third term of President Nkurunziza were going to die. That’s why I left,” Eric Ahishakiye, a 23-year-old mechanic, told AFP.

Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said those fleeing had recounted “harassment and intimidation by Imbonerakure youth militants, who paint red marks on homes of people to be targeted”.

Rwanda, where a Tutsi-led government has been in power since the 1994 genocide, has signalled its concern at the arrival of so many refugees.

“While we respect Burundi’s sovereignty in addressing internal matters, Rwanda considers the safety of innocent populations as a regional and international responsibility,” the foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, said last week.


Sam Jones and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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