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Burundi protesters clash with police
02:06 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

People are said to have been killed in the night

An army barracks was attacked, provoking retribution

Observers fear possible ethnic violence and regional instability

CNN  — 

People dragged from their homes and killed in the night. Bodies littering the streets of the capital at dawn. An attack on an army barracks. A President whose third term is viewed by many as unconstitutional.

All this amid a history of horrible ethnic warfare.

These are frightening times in the central African country of Burundi. Lurking always in the background is the possibility of widespread ethnic violence and even regional instability.

And one resident of the capital, Bujumbura, made an emotional plea Wednesday to the international community.

“How many people must die before you help stop the killings?” Nsengiyumva Pierre Claver, a former European Union elections observer, asked in an interview with CNN.

President takes a third term

Burundi is a tiny landlocked country in the Great Lakes region, bordered by the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the west, Rwanda to the north and Tanzania to the east and south. It’s about the size of Belgium.

President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a third term despite a two-term limit.

The current instability began in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza said he would run for a third term. The move seemed a clear violation of both the agreement that ended the country’s civil war and the Burundi’s Constitution.

Protesters took to the streets. Police fired with live ammunition, killing a number of them.

In May, an attempted coup was beaten back. In July, Nkurunziza was re-elected.

And since the beginning of August, it appears that his opponents are being subjected to extrajudicial assassination, said Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher on Burundi for the international organization Human Rights Watch.

Almost every day since, Tertsakian said, there have been bodies in the street – sometimes one, sometimes two.

But now the situation is at its most worrisome yet, she said. The violence has escalated.

A Burundi government spokesman is downplaying the report.

Philip Nzobonariba said Human Rights Watch is not present in Burundi, and accuses the group of working with the enemies of the country in the past.

“It only repeats what people who attacked the country and their allies tell them,” he said.

A history of ethnic civil war

Last week, an army barracks in Bujumbura was attacked. Following that attack, at least 87 people, reportedly including four police officers and four soldiers, were killed.

“The police apparently went from house to house, looking for young men and shooting them,” Tertsakian said.

And the bodies started turning up in the streets in much greater numbers.

“There were corpses in the road of young people who were dragged off their beds and killed,” said Claver, the former elections observer.

Tertsakian said it seems likely more than 100 people were killed, though it’s hard to come by reliable information. CNN has not been able to confirm that figure independently.

“Since the attacks on the barracks, people in Bujumbura have been terrified and they are just hiding in their houses,” she said.

And so, fewer people are in the streets to bear witness to the killings.

So far, the violence has been fueled by politics. And people on both sides are hardening their positions and resorting increasingly to violence, she said.

“It’s a fairly straightforward political crisis which some politicians have attempted to manipulate into an ethnic conflict – and may do so in the future,” Tertsakian said.

For now, the opposition consists of both Hutus and Tutsis.

But Claver and others greatly fear a return to ethnic violence.

Should Nkurunziza feel under too much threat, the last card he will have left to play, Claver said, will be to call Hutus to stand in solidarity with him – to cast the conflict in ethnic rather than political terms.

And ethnic tension lies close to the surface in Burundi.

A troubled history

The country’s civil war, which lasted from 1993 until 2003, was driven by hatred between Hutus and Tutsis. An estimated 300,000 people were killed – in a country of 10 million people.

The ethnic makeup of Burundi is similar to that of Rwanda – a Hutu majority, a Tutsi minority.

In the 1994 Rwandan genocide, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in the course of 100 days.

Any ethnic conflict in Burundi could spread in the region – inciting passions among the parties’ ethnic relatives in neighboring countries.

And flows of refugees might provoke further regional instability.

Claver said the prospects for peace seem to recede by the day.

“Now it’s really difficult to see whether a return to peace is possible in the immediate future,” he said.

Jean Claude Niyongabo contributed to this story