UPDATE: Rwanda's Kagame accuses Burundi leaders of 'massacres'; thousands flee Bujumbura fearing crackdown

Seven people executed by gunmen in Burundi bar attack as police launch weapon raids.

RWANDAN President Paul Kagame has accused Burundi’s leaders of carrying out “massacres” on their people in his most critical speech yet of the crisis in the troubled neighbouring state. 

“People die every day, corpses litter the streets… How can the leaders allow their population to be massacred from morning to night?” Kagame said, speaking in Kinyarwanda on Friday, in a speech heard by AFP on Sunday. 

Relations between Rwanda and Burundi are tense, with Bujumbura accusing Kigali of backing those who oppose President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial third term.

Kagame’s statement came a ahead an exodus out of Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, as thousands flee their homes ahead of a promised government crackdown on armed opponents.

Gunmen execute seven
Gunmen executed at least seven people in Burundi’s capital hours hours before police launched the house-to-house searches for weapons on Sunday, amid international fears of fresh bloodletting in the central African nation.

Hundreds of police and soldiers ringed the northern flashpoint neighbourhood of Mutakura in the capital Bujumbura early Sunday to start of a widely feared crackdown on “enemies of the nation.”

Residents said security forces were carrying out house-to-house searches. “The police started the search operation for hidden weapons in Mutakura,” city mayor Freddy Mbonimpa said, adding the raids were being “done professionally, because the police are using weapon detectors.” 

The mayor said seven people were killed and two wounded in an “execution” attack adding that a probe had been launched to track the “assassins.” 

International alarm has grown as a government amnesty to hand in weapons ended with fears it will trigger further violence and drawing warnings from the head of the UN, Washington and the world’s only permanent war crimes court. 

On Saturday, Burundi said it wanted only to crush “terrorism”, as it dismissed international fears of fresh bloodletting if the government carries out threats to stamp out resistance to the president.

“There will be no war or genocide,” presidential communications chief Willy Nyamitwe told AFP, after international worries over a government escalation of already strident rhetoric, with warnings of tough measures to quash resistance to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s recent re-election.

But Nyamitwe said the government was trying to suppress “acts of terrorism, as with Al-Shabaab in Somalia,” referring to the Islamist insurgents that Burundi troops are fighting as part of an internationally backed African Union force.

However, the latest international fear has grown, more immediately, over a deadline that  for civilians to hand over weapons or face a new regime crackdown and the context in which it is happening.

Washington’s top envoy to the region, Thomas Perriello, has specifically condemned what he called the “inflammatory and dangerous government rhetoric.”

But Nyamitwe said that the international community had “fallen into the trap” of those who have wrongly warned of genocide, saying government speeches had “several meanings”.

“They have been interpreted in a negative manner,” Nyamitwe said.

 ‘Frightening lawlessness’ 

The ominous sign came last week, when the country’s Senate president Reverien Ndikuriyo threatened to “pulverize” regime opponents who do not lay down arms before Friday’s deadline.

“Today, the police shoot in the legs… but when the day comes that we tell them to go to ‘work,’ do not come crying to us,” he said. 

The loaded term “work” was a euphemism used in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide to describe the mass killings of at least 800,000 mainly Tutsi people by extremist Hutu militias. 

“The language is unambiguous to Burundians and chillingly similar to that used in Rwanda in the 1990s before the genocide,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank said.

Burundi shares the same Tutsi-Hutu mix as Rwanda.

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza is a Hutu, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is Tutsi. Kigali has raised concerns that Rwanda rebels FDLR, who are based in eastern neighbouring DR Congo, and several of whom were involved in the 1994 genocide, have found their way into Burundi and been accommodated by Hutu hardliners.

At least 200 people have died in the latest turmoil and 200,000 have fled the country, recalling some of the darkest periods of recent history in the region.

But rights activists said people were deeply fearful of the government messages.

“Ask anyone in Bujumbura and they will tell you the same thing: dark days lie ahead,” Carina Tertsakian from Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned.

“Burundi seems to be descending into uncontrolled violence. A frightening lawlessness is taking hold, which some authorities appear to be taking advantage of to justify brutal repression.”

Burundi was wracked by 13 years of conflict, ending in 2006, between Hutu rebels and the minority Tutsi that left 300,000 dead.

Last week, the country’s Senate president Reverien Ndikuriyo threatened to “pulverize” regime opponents who do not lay down arms before Friday’s deadline.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday the discovery of bodies—“many apparently summarily executed”—has become a “regular occurrence” in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura.

In The Hague, the International Criminal Court has warned it was ready to prosecute the instigators of any large-scale violence.

Journalist handed to intelligence service

On Friday, a journalist arrested by the army was handed over to the widely feared National Intelligence Service (SNR).

Blaise Celestin Ndihokubwayo, a journalist from the private radio Isanganiro, was a short distance outside Bujumbura, radio director Prasanth Maniradutunga said.

The political crisis has seen many independent media outlets shut down, and many journalists have fled the country or have gone into hiding because of threats and attacks.

The UN Security Council is to meet on Monday to discuss the crisis.

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