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Assassination of Opposition Figure in Burundi Derails Talks Between Protesters and Government

The head of a small opposition party in Burundi was gunned down along with a bodyguard on Saturday in a drive-by shooting in the country’s capital.
May 24, 2015, 4:30pm
Photo par Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

The assassination of an opposition figure in Burundi in a drive-by shooting yesterday has reportedly prompted several other members of opposition groups to go into hiding, and led to the suspension of talks between the government and protesters opposed to President Pierre Nkurunziza's plan to seek a third term in office.

Zedi Feruzi, the head of a small opposition party called the Union for Peace and Development (UPD), was killed late Saturday evening near his home in Bujumbura's Ngagara district. One of Feruzi's bodyguards was also gunned down, and two police officers were reportedly wounded in the shooting.

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"We heard a lot of gunfire," a neighbor told Reuters Television. "It's unfortunate because there were army soldiers here, and they didn't do anything."

Jean Baptiste Bireha, a Burundian journalist from the radio station Bonesha FM, was on the scene when the shooting occurred, and said he witnessed the assassins firing Kalashnikov rifles from a Toyota car. "This was close range, they wanted to kill us," Bireha told Radio France International.

Bireha, who was wounded in the attack, also claimed that the assailants appeared to be members of Burundi's presidential guard. His claim could not be independently verified, however, and it was strongly denied Saturday by a spokesman for the president, who suggested that if the attackers were indeed wearing the uniforms, it may have been an attempt to cast suspicion on the government.

"I saw them, they had police uniforms, [the type] the guys from the presidential guard wear, I am sure," Bireha said. "When they left, they were shouting and singing."

Shortly after the shooting, the office of the president sent out a tweet confirming the assassination. "The presidency of Burundi is deeply moved by the assassination of Zedi Feruzi from UPD during the presidential campaign," the tweet said.

Related: In Photos: Masked Protesters Face Off with Burundi Police as Anti-Government Demonstrations Rage On

— Burundi | Présidence (@BdiPresidence)May 23, 2015

According to the New York Times, Feruzi was a member of Burundi's relatively small Muslim community and "a well-known figure" in the country, though his party was a small faction of the opposition coalition. The UPD party has also been divided over whether to support Nkurunziza's bid for re-election or join the chorus of opponents who say the president's plan violates the two-term limit set by the country's constitution and the 2005 peace accord that ended more than a decade of civil war.

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Feruzi was buried Sunday in a Muslim cemetery in Bujumbura in a funeral attended by thousands of people. The Associated Press reported that attendees sang patriotic songs as the body was carried to the gravesite.

Feruzi's death comes less than two weeks after a failed attempt by members of Burundi's military to oust Nkurunziza in a coup while the president was out of the country. Several coup leaders were arrested, and a lawyer for the plotters claimed last week that his clients were tortured.

Related: Burundi's Response to Coup Said to be Brutal as Embattled President Reclaims Control

Leading opposition figure Agathon Rwasa told the AP that he and other dissidents have gone into hiding in the capital for fear of their safety after Feruzi's killing. Opposition leaders also postponed ongoing talks with government officials set up earlier this month by the African Union. Anshere Nikoyagize, head of the civil society group Ligue ITEKA, also said opposition parties would not attend the talks, according to Reuters.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged both government and opposition leaders to continue the talks in the hopes of stopping further violence. In a statement, Ban said he wants both parties "not to be deterred by those who, through violence, seek to prevent the creation of an environment conducive to peaceful, credible and inclusive elections in Burundi."

Last week, Nkurunziza postponed the country's parliamentary elections from May 26 to June 5 at the request of the country's electoral commission. Presidential elections are still scheduled for June 26.

At least 20 protesters have died during clashes with police, and more than 100,000 people have fled the country amid fears of escalating violence. Yesterday, grenades lobbed in the capital killed at least two people at a market.

In neighboring Tanzania, where tens of thousands of Burundians have fled, a cholera outbreak at refugee camp has lead to dozens of deaths, according to the UN.

Follow Gillian Mohney on Twitter: @gillianmohney

Etienne Rouillon contributed reporting