May 12, 2018 / 1:57 PM / 11 days ago

Attackers kill 26 in northwest Burundi ahead of vote

NAIROBI (Reuters) - At least 26 people were killed and seven others wounded in an attack in Burundi’s north western province of Cibitoke late on Friday, less than a week before a constitutional referendum, a local administrator and residents said.

Burundi is due to hold a referendum on May 17 to decide whether to amend the constitution to extend presidential terms to seven years from five.

Human rights groups say they do not think the vote will take place in a free and fair climate, while there has been sporadic incidents of violence and abductions.

Emmanuel Bigirimana, the head of Buganda district, said the incident happened in a village called Ruhagarika at around 10 p.m. on Friday.

“They arrived at the village ... armed with rifles, some with machetes, and started shooting. Some died instantly and others were rushed to the hospital,” he told Reuters by phone.

“The attackers were around 20 and nearly all of them were in military uniforms.”

Burundi was plunged into crisis in April 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza said he planned to run for a third term, which the opposition said was unconstitutional and violated a peace deal that had ended the country’s civil war in 2005.

Nkurunziza was re-elected, but some of his opponents took up arms against him. Rights groups say an estimated 400,000 people have sought refuge from the violence in neighbouring countries.

Government officials and members of the opposition have been among those killed in tit-for-tat violence by rival sides.

The proposed constitutional changes would limit the president to two consecutive terms but would not take into account previous terms, potentially extending Nkurunziza’s rule to 2034.

Three residents at the village who did not wish to be named said it was likely the attack was to warn against anyone voting in favour of constitutional changes.

But Bigirimana downplayed that, saying the attackers were not politically motivated, given they targeted three homesteads and killing only women and children.

“A whole family of six people has also been slain. The attack was not politically motivated but was rather a settlement of a score,” he said.

Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Clelia Oziel

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