The African Union (AU) has said it's prepared to send thousands of peacekeepers to Burundi to stem mounting violence linked to the country's ongoing political crisis, but embattled President Pierre Nkurunziza responded to the plan on Wednesday by threatening to fight any forces that cross the border without his permission.
Earlier this month, the AU said it was ready to send 5,000 peacekeepers to protect civilians caught up in months of violence, invoking for the first time powers to intervene in a member state against its will. Civil unrest erupted on the streets of the capital Bujumbura in April in response to Nkurunziza's controversial decision to run for a third term in office. Tens of thousands of people have since fled the country amid intense protests and a rash of killings.
Nkurunziza, a 52-year-old former rebel leader, has been defiant against the international community, refusing to cancel his re-election campaign and, most recently, refusing to allow agree to the AU's proposal.
"Everyone has to respect Burundi borders," Nkurunziza said in comments broadcast on state radio. "In case they violate those principles, they will have attacked the country and every Burundian will stand up and fight against them… The country will have been attacked and it will respond."
Other government officials have already said any peacekeepers arriving without Burundi's permission would violate its sovereignty. Nkurunziza's comments on Wednesday came after the AU reiterated its readiness to engage with the government in discussions about deploying the peacekeeping mission known as African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU).
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Critics claimed Nkurunziza's move to seek a third term violated the constitution, which outlines strict two-term limits for the president. Burundi's constitutional court ultimately ruled in the leader's favor, however, deciding he was eligible because he was technically appointed to his first term after the country ended more than a decade of civil war.
A failed coup, continued clashes, and gun attacks in the central African nation have unsettled a region where memories of the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda are still raw. After Nkurunziza clinched a majority vote at the polls and was sworn into his third term, assassinations of both opposition leaders and members of Nkurunziza's regime began to occur. The victims have included military officials, human rights workers, and journalists. Reports of dead bodies in the streets of the capital also became a regular occurrence, with more than 240 people reported killed since the unrest kicked off last spring.
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The situation hit a critical point on December when gunmen attacked three military bases in the country in a seemingly coordinated attack. Security forces fought back, and a day of violence and gunfire ensued. The next morning, 87 dead bodies were found in Bujumbura neighborhoods where fighting had occurred. As United Nations officials began stepping up their calls for concern and action, the AU came in with their plan to deploy peacekeepers without Nkurunziza's permission just weeks later.
Burundi's government and opposition kicked off peace talks on Monday, though one senior member of the state delegation almost immediately threatened to pull out if he saw participants in a failed coup on the other side of the table. The ruling CNDD-FDD party "can't be part of the talks if those who took part of the failed coup are involved," Victor Burikukiye, a member of the ruling party delegation, said as the talks opened.
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Regional powers called both sides to Uganda for discussions to end months of fighting. Monday's talks in the country drew Burundian government and opposition delegations, representatives from the AU and the UN, as well as Western diplomats. The next series of talks will be held at the headquarters of the East African Community bloc in Arusha, Tanzania.
"I appeal to you… to sit down and have a political solution so that you save your people from that suffering which they're going through now," Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said as he opened the session.Reuters contributed to this report.
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