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Burundi protesters suspend government talks after opposition figure murdered

Injured patients at a hospital in Bujumbura on May 22, 2015 after a double grenade attack on a market that killed three people/AFP

Injured patients at a hospital in Bujumbura on May 22, 2015 after a double grenade attack on a market that killed three people/AFP

Bujumbura, Burundi, May 24 – Activists in Burundi behind weeks of protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial bid to seek a third term said Sunday they were suspending talks with the government after the murder of an opposition figure.

Zedi Feruzi, the leader of the Union for Peace and Development (UPD), a small Burundian opposition party, was shot dead on Saturday, a day after a grenade attack on a busy market also killed three people and injured around 40 others.

The attacks have dramatically worsened tensions in the crisis-hit central African nation, where a heavy-handed crackdown on the anti-government demonstrations has already left around 30 dead since late April. The crisis also sparked a failed coup against President Nkurunziza last week.

Condemning the apparent assassination as “an awful act”, activists said in a statement they were “suspending participation in dialogue with the government” that had been supported by the United Nations and African Union.

They also said the murder could have been part of an alleged “plan to physically eliminate” leaders of the campaign against Nkurunziza. A journalist who witnessed the attack said the gunmen were clad in uniforms similar to those worn by the presidential guard.

The presidency has denied any involvement, saying it was “shocked” by the attack, in which a police bodyguard was also killed. It said the incident should be urgently investigated “so the guilty are brought to justice”.

UN Secretary General Bon Ki-moon also condemned the latest violence and appealed for “calm and restraint”.

“These acts of violence constitute a stark reminder of the need for all Burundian political leaders to address the current political crisis with the highest sense of responsibility and to place peace and national reconciliation above partisan interests,” Ban’s office said.

– Weekend truce –

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Civil society leader Pacifique Nininahazwe on Friday announced a weekend truce “to allow the people to bury with dignity those who died for democracy,” but has warned that “protests will resume on Monday with even more force.”

Burundi’s crisis, which began in late April after the ruling party nominated Nkurunziza to stand again in the June 26 presidential election, deepened last week when a top general staged a failed coup attempt.

Parliamentary polls, initially set for May 26, have been postponed to June 5.

Opposition and rights groups say that Nkurunziza’s bid for a third five-year term violates the constitution and conditions of a peace deal that ended a 13-year civil war in 2006.

Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader and born-again Christian who believes he has divine backing to lead the country, argues that his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people.

Refugees continue to flee the violence, most of them to neighbouring Tanzania, where over 50,000 people are struggling to survive in dire conditions on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

Cholera has broken out in squalid camps there, with at least 31 people having died among a total of over 3,000 cases of the disease, with numbers growing by up to 400 cases a day, according to the UN refugee agency.

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