Government and opposition rivals were meeting in Burundi on Wednesday in an attempt to end the deadly demonstrations against a third-term bid by President Pierre Nkurunziza, as regional foreign ministers arrived to assist in resolving the conflict.
Protesters have defied calls to end demonstrations after more than a week of running battles in which more than a dozen people have been killed, including police officers.
Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority who has been in power since 2005, has come under intense international pressure to withdraw from the June 26 presidential poll.
“This is a last-chance meeting. They have to come up with concrete solutions so that elections can be held in acceptable conditions,” said a diplomat who wished to remain anonymous, warning that international funding for polls could be cut if a deal was not struck.
US Secretary of State John Kerry warned on Monday that he was “deeply concerned” about Nkurunziza’s decision to stand again, which he said “flies directly in the face of the Constitution”.
The rivals met late on Tuesday and talks were expected to continue on Wednesday as protests continued in some areas of the capital.
East African foreign ministers from neighbouring Rwanda and Tanzania, as well as Kenya and Uganda, arrived “to listen to all parties in the conflict and to try to propose ways out of crisis”, said foreign ministry spokesperson Daniel Kabuto.
The meetings come after furious protesters dismissed a Constitutional Court ruling that allows Nkurunziza to run in the June elections.
The court ruled on Tuesday that a third term was allowed, after the Constitutional Court’s vice-president refused to sign the ruling and fled the country instead.
Vice-President Prosper Bazombanza has pleaded for the protests to end, offering to release demonstrators who had been arrested, lift arrest warrants issued for key civil society leaders and reopen independent radio stations – provided “protests and the insurrection stop”.
A government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the government had “agreed to talk with some partners in civil society and the opposition to find a solution”.
But one of the leaders of the campaign against Nkurunziza’s third term said they were doubtful the talks would result in a deal.
“We talked late into the night,” he said, asking not to be named. “But I’m afraid we won’t succeed because the government does not want to discuss the third mandate of Nkurunziza, and this issue is non-negotiable for us.”
Burundi, where a 13-year civil war between Tutsis and Hutus ended in 2006, has been rocked by violent protests since the CNDD-FDD designated Nkurunziza to stand in what critics say is in defiance of the Constitution and the Arusha Accords, which ended the civil war.
Nkurunziza’s supporters say he is eligible to run again as his first term in office followed his election by Parliament, not directly by the people as the Constitution specifies.
Last week, the East African Community (EAC) – the five-nation bloc that includes Burundi – called for talks to ease tensions and ensure “the realisation of a peaceful, free and fair electoral process”.
The EAC called on Burundi to “ensure that the electoral process does not lead to humanitarian crisis”, noting that tens of thousands of Burundians had already fled to neighbouring nations fearing violence. – AFP