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Burundi Silences Radio Stations and Arrests Human Rights Activist as Political Crackdown Continues

After six people were killed during large protests Sunday in Burundi’s capital over the president’s plan to seek a third term in office, police and protesters squared off again Monday.
April 27, 2015, 11:14pm
Photo by Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Protesters and police squared off again Monday in Burundi, two days after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his plan to defy the country's constitution and seek a third term in office.

After six people were killed during large protests Sunday in Burundi's capital Bujumbura, the government crackdown continued Monday with the arrest of human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. Officials also issued an arrest warrant for Vital Nshimirimana, a leader of the campaign to block Nkurunziza's third term, after he called for the protests to continue.

Authorities also shut down African Public Radio (RPA), the country's main independent radio station, which they accused of encouraging "an insurrectional movement."

"The radio station has to be shut down because of an official decision," RPA program director Gilbert Niyonkuru told listeners Monday. "We will need a new authorization to reopen." The government also shut down several other radio stations on Sunday.

Related: Two killed in Burundi as thousands protest president's plan to run for third term 

— Thierry Uwamahoro (@ThierryU)27 Avril 2015

In Bujumbura, riot police clashed with close to 1,000 demonstrators from the northwestern neighborhood of Citiboke, which was at the heart of Sunday's clashes. Police used tear gas to disperse the protesters and stop them from reaching the city center. Many young people in the crowd held branches as a sign of their commitment to peace.

By mid-afternoon, there were reports of clashes in the southeastern neighborhood of Musaga. RFI journalist Sonia Rolley reported that police "fired warning shots" with "real bullets" at demonstrators who were mooning them.

Riot police have been deployed in the center of Bujumbura since Saturday, when Nkurunziza announced his nomination as his party's candidate in the June 2015 presidential election. Several witnesses said the army was also in the streets of the capital Monday, but that troops were protecting — not attacking — the protesters.

The Army in— Rama Isibo (@ramaisibo)27 Avril 2015

Burundi army spokesman Col. Gaspard Baratuza told VICE News that soldiers remained neutral and only intervened to prevent looting. "The army pursues its mission to protect the people," Baratuza said. "We are here to protect demonstrators so that they do not become victims of the consequences of the protests."

Baratuza described the government's ban on protests as a "political" decision, and said that he and his men were "technicians," not politicians.

Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa project director for the conflict prevention NGO International Crisis Group (ICG), said that the army is torn over its role. Vircoulon told VICE News that many in the army believe that political neutrality means following government orders, but others think "the army shouldn't meddle in political disputes."

"The officers in the Burundian army are torn between those two interpretations, so it's not surprising that part of the army is opposed to the repression," Vircoulon said.

On Monday, a Citiboke resident told AFP that he was glad to see the army in the streets "because the police have been blending in with the young people from the ruling party." Members of the ruling party's youth wing — the Imbonerakure — have previously been accused of murder and waging intimidation campaigns against opposition supporters.

Related: At least 47 surrendered rebels 'executed' as Burundi makes a bloody start to 2015

— Iwacu (@abakunzi)27 Avril 2015

Several journalists and an opposition supporter reported seeing members of the Imbonerakure armed with guns and machetes patrolling the streets of Citiboke on Sunday night, when several people were injured.

According to the latest report from UN's refugee agency, 15,000 people have already fled to neighboring Rwanda to escape escalating violence at the hands of the Imbonerakure.

Mbonimpa, the human rights activist arrested Monday, has been active in a campaign to stop the incumbent president's bid for a third term in office. Mbonimpa's lawyer Armel Niyongere told AFP that his client's arrest was "linked to his call for demonstrations."

Burundi's presidential election is currently scheduled for June.

Acting State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf reacted to Nkurunziza's decision Saturday to seek a third term by saying the country lost "a historic opportunity to strengthen its democracy."

In a statement issued Monday, a spokesperson for the French government called for "transparent and peaceful elections."

Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter @meloboucho