Refugees from Burundi flow into Rwanda as tensions mount; violence feared ahead of elections

More than 10,000 people from the East African nation of Burundi have crossed into neighboring Rwanda amid threats of violence ahead of elections, with many arriving here saying they have been intimidated by thugs who support President Pierre Nkurunziza who may seek a third term.

An average of 360 people are arriving every day. Many refugees say they fear attacks from a group known as Imbonerakure, a youth group loyal to Nkurunziza's ruling party, known by its initials as the CNDD-FDD.

"They have been armed and are ready to harm or at worst kill anyone who doesn't support CNDD-FDD," Jean de Dieu Niyibizi, 27, one of the refugees who crossed to Rwanda.

Appearing frail after many hours of walking, Niyibizi said that he and others trekked for two days before they got an entry point to enter Rwanda after they reported the threats to local authorities and no action was taken. The refugees say the government has put armed forces along border points to prevent people from fleeing.

"We had to bribe out way out because if you don't have money they send you back," said Niyibizi, who left behind his wife and two children. "I wanted to come and see the situation before I ask them to come."

Last week, Burundi's president said that citizens were fleeing from no particular threat but from hunger.

The CNDD-FDD is set to convene a congress on Saturday to decide whether it will field Nkurunziza or get a new candidate in the June 26 presidential elections. The international community has warned that attempts to violate the constitution could catapult Burundi back into violence and ethnic strife.

Burundi's constitution says the president "is elected by universal direct suffrage for a mandate of five years renewable one time," but Nkurunziza's supporters say he is eligible to serve a third term because he was first installed as president in 2005 by parliament to lead a transitional government, and not by a popular vote. He won the 2010 election as the sole candidate. Opposition members boycotted, saying they feared it would be rigged.

The flow of refugees testifies to the fear that violence that gripped the country for years until the 2003 Arusha Peace Accord could be rekindled. 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. The Rwandan government and the U.N. refugee agency on Wednesday started relocating the refugees from the current camps near the border to another camp in Mahama, east of Kigali, Rwanda's capital.

Resistance to Nkurunziza, an ethnic Hutu, running for a third term includes members of his own party, lawmakers, the clergy, student groups and civil society.

Hussein Radjabu, the former head of CNDD-FDD who fell out with Nkurunziza, on Tuesday warned that the ruling party could be planning ethnic killings and that people have already been trained and armed to carry out attacks.

Presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe said on Thursday that Radjabu's claims are not true.