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Blasts of $3 grenades rock Burundi's frail civil war recovery, disrupt elections

BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) — Grenades cost as little as $3 each in this tiny East African country, and they have become the preferred method of settling political scores.

Burundi has seen more than 60 grenade attacks over the last month, sparking fears the violence could plunge the country back into civil war. The nation is working through a series of elections, and a vote this week saw the president win easy re-election after opposition candidates withdrew over fears the outcome would be rigged.

Typically thrown in the evening by assailants on motorbikes or in cars, the grenades have killed eight people and wounded almost 50. Targets have ranged from the posh homes of ruling-party insiders to opposition activists and crowded tin-roofed bars. The ruling party and opposition members have traded accusations of trying to wipe out opponents or intimidate voters.

"These attacks are a sign of the collapse in political dialogue in the country," said Jean Marie Vianney Kavumbagu, head of a local election monitoring group. "Until the opposition decided to boycott the elections we did not have this level of attacks."

He added that he expected grenade attacks to continue if opposition parties decide to boycott the legislative elections scheduled in the next two months.

Burundi and neighboring Rwanda have a bloodstained history, the result of violence between Hutus and Tutsis — the two main ethnic groups in these countries. Burundi's civil war had been fought mainly between Hutu rebels and a Tutsi-dominated army, and resulted in the deaths of more than 250,000 people.

Used previously in isolated cases to settle personal disputes, grenades have become the terror weapon of choice because they are cheap and spark fear, said Celsius Barahinduka, a coordinator for a network of local organizations trying to cleanse Burundi of its weapons caches.

Investigations into recent grenade attacks have been hampered by a police force with a heavy bias toward the country's ruling party, local human rights groups say.

Most grenade attacks go unsolved, but Barahinduka blamed both the opposition and the president's party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy — Forces For Defense of Democracy.

Opposition members throw grenades to disrupt the electoral process, while those in power use the attacks as a pretext to arrest opponents, Barahinduka said.

Both sides deny being behind the attacks, but with thousands of unemployed, recently demobilized ex-combatants in their ranks, Burundi is sitting on a powder keg, Barahinduka said.

Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza won Monday's election with 91 percent of the vote, according to the national electoral commission. And though local observers reported seeing low turnout on election day because of fears of insecurity, the commission said turnout was almost 77 percent.

After more than 15 years of conflict, Burundi is awash in small arms, particularly grenades. It was only 15 months ago that the country's last rebel army, the Forces for National Liberation, laid down its weapons and transformed itself into the leading opposition party.

But up to 70,000 illegal small arms remain in circulation nationwide, according to local human rights organization Ligue Iteka. The government claims there are around 20,000 arms still in circulation.

The sheer scale of illegally held arms in the country comes despite a nationwide campaign that saw citizens voluntarily hand over almost 16,000 weapons in just 10 days last October. In return citizens were given building materials, mobile phones and clothing. Almost 13,000 of the weapons handed in were grenades.

Once rocked by ethnic-based civil war between Hutu rebels and a Tutsi-dominated army, ethnic tensions in Burundi have receded since a power sharing deal between the groups was agreed upon in 2000.

The current attacks are not about violence between ethnic groups but between people of different political parties, said local activist Pacifique Nininahazwe. The ruling party and leading opposition party are both former Hutu rebel armies, Nininahazwe said.

Opposition politicians suspect the ruling party is behind most attacks, so they can frame opposition members as violent and persuade citizens that only the ruling party can protect them. Opposition parties say that dozens of activists have been arbitrarily arrested during the election period.

Leading opposition member Agathon Rwasa went into hiding in recent days over fears he would be arrested. Another prominent opposition member, Alexis Sinduhije, says he is followed everywhere he goes and cannot leave Bujumbura, the capital.

Police spokesman Pierre Channel Ntarabaganyi blamed the attacks on the opposition but denied people were singled out by police for their political allegiances. He said 10 opposition activists have been arrested and that some were caught with grenades.

The night before the presidential vote an opposition activist with four grenades was arrested, Ntarabganyi said. The suspect had planned to throw the grenades at restaurants in the capital popular with the expatriate community, he said.