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Burundians flee capital over fears of security crackdown

Landry Nshimiye, AFP | A file photo taken on July 6, 2015 shows policemen about to set up a road block in the Burundian capital

Gunmen have shot dead at least nine people in an attack on a bar in Bujumbura as a feared government security crackdown, that has caused scores of people to flee the Burundi capital, got under way.

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Witnesses said the gunmen stormed into the bar -- located in a mainly opposition neighbourhood -- forcing those drinking to go outside and lie in the street before opening fire.

Venant Rwakiranya, who lives near the bar and saw the bodies, said Sunday that the bar's owner, his nephew and one of his employees were among the victims.

The killings in the city's southern Kanyosha district took place late on Saturday, hours ahead of a deadline for civilians to hand over weapons, as the government urged security forces to use all means necessary to stamp out resistance to the president.

With the deadline expired, hundreds of police and soldiers ringed the opposition flashpoint Mutakura district in Bujumbura as they began house-to-house searches for weapons.

City mayor Freddy Mbonimpa said police were searching for "hidden weapons," insisting the raids were being "done professionally, because the police are using weapon detectors".

Police later displayed around a dozen rifles and grenades they said had been seized in the raids, which officials said would continue in coming days.

Fearing the government crackdown and fresh escalation of bloodshed, many people in largely opposition areas had already fled Bujumbura leaving behind key districts that have witnessed some of the worst violence.

"They are virtually emptied of all their inhabitants who have fled because of fear from unfounded rumours of violence," Freddy Mbonimpa, the mayor of the capital Bujumbura said.

Among those leaving their homes, some carried bed mats on their heads and children on their backs.

"Now I decide to leave as everyone is leaving. There is fear everywhere. But I still believe in God and all this will end," said Marguerite Bigira, an elderly woman who was among a group of people fleeing Mutakura.

At least 198 people have been killed in Burundi since late April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his bid, that was ultimately successful, for a third term in office. The actual death toll is likely much higher, according to UN officials, as many of the killings go unreported.

"These people are only good for dying"

Spokespersons from the UN, Washington and the world's only permanent war crimes court aired their concerns that the use of inflammatory language by some government officials and Nkurunziza's planned crackdown could incite mass violence.

Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, on Thursday quoted the president of the Burundian Senate, Révérien Ndikuriyo, as saying: "You tell those who want to execute the mission: On this issue, you have to pulverise, you have to exterminate - these people are only good for dying. I give you this order, go!"

Rwandan President Paul Kagame implored neighbouring Burundi to avoid the ethnic violence that ended in genocide in his country in 1994, in an emotional speech that was shared on social media on Sunday.

“People die every day, corpses litter the streets... How can the leaders allow their population to be massacred from morning to night?" Kagame said in a speech made in Kinyarwanda on Friday.

"They should learn from what happened here," he added.

Human Rights Watch said Saturday that in the last two days some neighbourhoods in Bujumbura "have started to empty" as panicked people flee to areas they consider less dangerous.

"Burundians take these warnings seriously, having seen relatives, friends, and neighbours shot dead by the police during nightly raids. Panic has set in, and some residents of Bujumbura have been packing up their belongings and fleeing," the group said in a statement Saturday.

"The police have a duty to restore security and disarm people who have weapons illegally, and they can use lethal force when lives are at imminent risk. But that does not give them a license to kill."

Mutakura resident Philbert Nzinahora said that a family in Bujumbura's Carama neighbourhood, seen as more peaceful, has agreed to host his wife and children until it is safe for them to return home. He will not accompany them, in order not to compromise their safety, he said: "I will find another place to go."

Although the current violence appears to be political, Burundi has a history of deadly conflicts between the country's Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups.

Nkurunziza took power in 2005 near the end of a civil war in which some 300,000 people were killed between 1993 and 2006.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, REUTERS)

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