Lynch mobs of anti-government protesters in Burundi reportedly burned a body Thursday as the pre-election unrest that has raged for nearly two weeks in the country's capital city of Bujumbura escalated dramatically.
Witnesses said the burned body belonged to a member of the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of Burundi's ruling CNDD-FDD party, which known for its thuggish intimidation against political opponents. It's unclear whether the person was burned alive or already dead before the fire was set. Attacks against the Imbonerakure were reported earlier in the week, but Thursday appeared to be particularly violent. Dramatic photos circulated on social media purportedly showing a shirtless man begging the military for protection from a lynch mob.
— Frédérique Geffard (@fgeffardAFP) May 7, 2015
At least four people — including a 15-year-old boy — died in clashes Thursday, according to the Burundi Red Cross. Nine serious injuries were also reported. Supporters of President Pierre Nkurunziza — whose controversial decision to seek a third term in office sparked the protests — allegedly threw grenades at the demonstrators.
Children were kept out of school amid the unrest, missing national secondary school entrance exams that were scheduled for Thursday. By the end of the day, gunshots could still be heard ringing throughout the town.
Burundi president ordered schools to hold exams today, but protestors marched on many schools & shut them down. pic.twitter.com/fPomPJbKl7
— Geoffrey York (@geoffreyyork) May 7, 2015
Thursday marked 12 days since the April 25 announcement by CNDD-FDD party that Nkurunziza would seek re-election. Burundi's constitution, shaped by the Arusha Peace Agreement that ended 12 years of ethnically charged civil war in the country, set a strict two-term limit for the office of president.
Nkurunziza, a 51-year-old former rebel leader, was appointed to office by the country's parliament as a transitional leader in 2005. His supporters claim he is eligible to seek another term because he was not elected by a popular vote when he first took office.
Police have reportedly detained at least 600 people since the protests began, and dozens have reportedly been killed and injured. According to the UN's refugee agency, 40,000 Burundians have fled across the border into neighboring Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The demonstrations calmed down slightly over the weekend, but erupted again Tuesday after the country's constitutional court ruled that Nkurunziza is eligible to run in the June 26 elections. Speaking Wednesday on national television, the leader tried to reassure citizens by saying this would be his last bid for president.
The opposition has accused Imbonerakure members — a group described by the UN as a militia — of backing the police in Bujumbura. Protesters have also accused local officials of arming the Imbonerakure with grenades and handguns.
"We are opposed to President Nkurunziza's third term and to this police force that kills us instead of protecting us," a protester in the suburb of Kanyosha told VICE News.
Opposition leader Audifax Ndabitoreye echoed these sentiments Wednesday in a heated speech as police officers arrested him at a popular hotel in Bujumbura. Plainclothes police officers took Ndabitoreye into custody after a meeting with foreign ministers from Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda.
VICE News was present at the Panoramique Hotel in the capital when Ndabitoreye was detained, and captured footage of comments he made prior to being removed from the building. The opposition leader accused the police of killing his fellow Burundians.
"If you want to arrest us, arrest us all, because we are all in favor of the protests," Ndabitoreye yelled in French. "We must resist up until the last minute. You have to resist. Not flee in the face of difficulty."
Ndabitoreye also said the police had kidnapped his wife, and criticized the government for backing the Imbonerakure.
"We are free," he said. "We were born free in this country. No one can reduce us to slavery. We have become the poorest country in the world because Nkurunziza is fostering militias. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Imbonerakure militia is Nkurunziza's own personal militia. It's paraded in front of him. Everyone knows. You have to stop this militia."
Authorities released Ndabitoreye late Wednesday night.
At least two of the people who died Thursday were reportedly killed due to their suspected allegiance to the Imbonerakure. One man in the northern suburb of Citiboke was beaten to death. An eyewitness told VICE News a mob destroyed the man's house after he allegedly fired a grenade into the crowd, injuring several people.
The person burned by protesters was also a suspected militia member."He had just been dropped off by a Burundian secret service agent called Kazungu and we suspected he was an Imbonerakure who had come here to help the police," an eyewitness told VICE News.
The government has banned demonstrations, and seven people were arrested Thursday in the northern neighborhood of Kinama. A witness told VICE News the detainees were taken to government building in the town.
Belgian attorney Bernard Maingain leaked information to newspaper La Libre Belgique this week alleging that Nkurunziza and his right-hand man General Adolphe Nshimirimana are plotting to arm the militias to incite ethnic violence in other regions of the country.
Maingain confirmed the leak to VICE News on Thursday, claiming the aim of the plot was "to revive ethnic tensions to create a majority that is favorable to President Nkurunziza." Maingain said he received information suggesting possible attacks on Tutsi neighborhoods in Bujumbura. The statements containing the information — allegedly made by "advisors of the general working in the intelligence services" — have been forwarded to the UN Security Council.
Presidential spokesman Jean-Claude Karerwa Ndenzako denied the allegations, telling VICE News that Maingain sides with the opposition, and calling the Belgian article one of many "libelous publications" about the situation in Burundi.
In the neighborhood of Kanyosha on Thursday, anti-government protesters broke the windows at the CNDD-FDD party headquarters, sparking further clashes with the Imbonerakure. One protester said he simply wanted life to return to normal.
"We want to break down all the barricades erected by the protesters because we just want to get on with our daily lives," he said.
But a member of the Imbonerakure standing nearby seemed to suggest the conflict would not be resolved peacefully. Wielding a club, he threatened to "deal with these protesters that are paralyzing the city."