Burundi's presidential elections are still more than a month away, but conflict over the contest is rapidly escalating. Police reportedly killed three people as thousands took to the streets in the capital city of Bujumbura for a second consecutive week, pushing back against President Pierre Nkurunziza's controversial decision to seek a third term in office.
Protesters reportedly hurled stones at local police, who responded with gunfire. Reports also surfaced that a grenade explosion injured two cops during Monday's clashes. Video from the demonstrations shows a crowd of protesters facing off against police officers clad in blue jumpsuits wielding shields, batons, and guns.
Human rights activists reported two protester deaths, while Burundi's Red Cross said three people were killed and 45 others wounded. Police spokesman Liboire Bakunduwukize, however, denied these claims to Reuters, and said the hand grenade injured 15 officers. During a press conference in front of a hospital, Bakunduwukize said police had the right to retaliate.
"Today, tomorrow, or the day after, wherever they will hurl grenades or wherever they will shoot, the police has a right to throw a grenade as well and even to shoot back and that's how it will be," he said, according to Reuters.
The protests began April 26 after Nkurunziza announced he would seek re-election for a third time when voters head to the polls on June 26. Burundi, a small landlocked country bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is one of the world's poorest nations and has been racked by civil war. A 2005 peace agreement that ended 12 years of fighting limits presidents to two terms in office.
Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader, was chosen as president by the country's parliament in 2005 as a transitional leader, prompting his supporters to claim he is eligible to seek another term because he was not elected by a popular vote when he first took office.
The government has been accused of orchestrating a harsh crackdown on demonstrators. Human Rights Watch said at least 400 people have been arrested as of May 1, along with seven dead and 66 injured.
While clashes continue on the street, Burundi's military has offered mixed signals about their allegiances. Initially, the defense minister said his forces would remain neutral, asking authorities to halt attacks on the country's people. But the chief of staff for the army strayed from this position on Sunday, saying his forces are loyal to the government.
During an official visit Monday to Kenya and Djibouti, US Secretary of State John Kerry seemingly spoke out against Nkurunziza's ambitions for a third term.
"We are deeply concerned about President Nkurunziza's decision, which flies directly in the face of the constitution of this country," Kerry said during a news conference in Nairobi. He blamed the protests directly on the Burundian leader's plans to run for president again, saying the outcry "should be listened to."
In response to a VICE News inquiry about Monday's violence, the US State Department sent a statement calling for Burundi's government to seek a peaceful resolution to the situation.
"The path of dialogue, peace and non-violence is the only path through which Burundi can find its way out of the current political crisis," the statement said. "We call on the police to exercise restraint and refrain from the excessive use of force to deter protesters."
Addressing the Burundian government's move to block social media access and restrict media outlets during the protests, the State Department also urged the government to lift the restraints and allow broadcasts to resume.
"We call on the government to ensure space for peaceful protests and to respect freedom of assembly, expression, association and the press," the statement said.
Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, visited Bujumbura at the end of April and expressed stern condemnation for Nkurunziza. The diplomat wrote on Twitter that he was "disappointed" in the president's decision, but added that there is still time for a "peaceful democratic path."
On my way to #Burundi-Disappointed Pres Nkurunziza violating Arusha Accord.Not too late for leaders/ppl to stay on peaceful democratic path
— Tom Malinowski (@Malinowski) April 28, 2015
Malinowski met with nearly 600 students who gathered Thursday outside the US Embassy and remained there overnight and into the day on Friday. The youth said they were seeking refuge due security concerns after authorities decided to shut the University of Burundi. A photo posted to Malinowski's Twitter account shows him speaking with what he called "peaceful students" outside of the embassy.
— Tom Malinowski (@Malinowski) May 1, 2015
Addressing the situation on Friday, State Department spokesperson Jeff Rathke confirmed that 600 students had sought shelter and security outside the embassy's gates, and that Malinowski had met with them.
"In our view, the students are simply seeking a place to shelter after the universities were closed, and we're urging the authorities to take steps to address their concerns," Rathke said during a daily press briefing. "We think that their plight reflects the desperate circumstances that confront Burundi as a result of lack of dialogue and by restrictions on the media and communication and freedom of expression."
He said the State Department commended the police and students for maintaining peace during the situation, while urging the government to reopen the university.
"We reiterate that the path of dialogue and peace and nonviolence is the only path through which Burundi can find its way forward in the political crisis that exists there," Rathke said.
The State Department confirmed to VICE News on Monday that as many as 200 students remain peacefully outside of the embassy, and said officials are working with the government to reinstate the students' stipends and to reopen the universities. The State Department said they are also working with international organizations and NGOs to ensure that the students have access to food, water, and shelter.
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB