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Burundi Soldier Killed In Unrest, Parliamentary, Local Votes Delayed

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Burundi’s embattled president postponed parliamentary and local elections on Wednesday and a soldier was shot dead in the capital amid a power struggle that could unleash more ethnic bloodshed in Africa’s Great Lakes region.

More than 20 people have been killed in nearly a month of unrest, including during a botched military coup a week ago, but the demonstrators demanding President Pierre Nkurunziza end his bid for a third term appear determined as ever.

In one incident in the volatile Musaga neighborhood of Bujumbura, a Reuters photographer monitoring protests heard a loud explosion in an area from which a slightly injured policeman walked away soon afterwards.

“The protesters have thrown a grenade,” an officer at the scene shouted.

A soldier was also shot dead, with witnesses saying he had been hit in the chest by a round fired by police, an incident that could inflame tensions between different wings of the security forces in the ethnically divided nation of 10 million.

Army spokesman Gasper Baratuza could not confirm details of the soldier’s death.

Red Cross spokesman Alexis Manirakiza said another soldier and three protesters had also been wounded in clashes.

There are few suggestions the struggle is being driven by ethnicity rather than the desire by urban Burundians to stop Nkurunziza seeking a third term, which they say violates the constitution and a peace deal that ended a long civil war in 2005.

Nkurunziza argues that his presidential bid is legitimate since he was appointed to his first term in office by parliament, rather than by a direct vote.

But the longer the political crisis drags on and the higher the death toll, the greater the chance it reopens the 10-year-old wounds in the East African country with its long history of mass killing between Hutus and Tutsis.

An estimated 300,000 people died in the civil war in Burundi, which has the same ethnic mix as neighboring Rwanda, where 800,000 – most of them Tutsis and moderate Hutus – were killed in a 1994 genocide.

“The situation is so unstable and volatile that every day appears to be flashpoint,” said Carina Tertsakian, Human Rights Watch’s senior Burundi researcher. “The demonstrators are not backing down and the government is intensifying its crackdown.”

Nkurunziza, a 51-year-old former sports lecturer, has so far yielded no ground to the protesters, whom his government has tried to associate with the failed military takeover, a tactic that has made no dent in the numbers on the streets.

However, on Wednesday he announced that parliamentary and local council elections scheduled for May 26 would be pushed back to June 5, a move his spokesman attributed to requests from opposition politicians and the international community.

Regional heavyweight South Africa, which helped broker an end to the civil war, called this week for the presidential vote to be postponed indefinitely to allow stability to return.

The 10-day delay to the local elections and Nkurunziza’s refusal to delay the presidential vote at the heart of the crisis is unlikely to appease the protesters.

They continue to march, chant and burn barricades in defiance of threats from security forces.

Last week’s abortive coup appeared to expose rifts in the military, a pillar of post-war unity and reconciliation, but presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe denied any splits in the security forces.

“The army is not divided,” he told Reuters.