High-profile attacks in Burundi have country on edge

A top ally of the president was assassinated and Burundi's top human rights lawyer attacked, spurring fears that simmering unrest is about to explode into widespread violence.

In this undated photo, prominent Burundian rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, center-right, visits with prisoners in Bujumbura, Burundi. Mbonimpa was shot and wounded in the capital late Monday, Aug. 3, 2015 by unknown assailants but his life is not in danger his daughter said Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015.

The assassination of a top Burundi security official and an attack on the country’s top human rights lawyer – the highest-profile attacks of recent political unrest – have fueled fears that a return to widespread violence could be imminent.

President Pierre Nkurunziza was reelected last month to a third term widely considered to be unconstitutional. His decision in April to run sparked protests that were put down harshly by police. More than 100,000 Burundians fled to neighboring countries, fearful that Burundi could be plunged into a civil war like the one that lasted from 1993 to 2005 and left an estimated 300,000 dead.

Burundi has been relatively stable amid the unrest, but citizens and analysts alike now wonder if the country has turned a corner. The government called for calm following the assassination Sunday of Gen. Adolphe Nshimirimana, the former intelligence chief who was still close to President Nkurunziza, but the shooting of human rights defender Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa followed Monday.

Targeted killings have been part of the landscape since the protests began, but none as high-profile as these two, and fears of revenge attacks are high.

“What really marks these targeted attacks is the profile of the people that have been attacked. In the case of Adolphe Nshimirimana, he really was the linchpin of the CNDD-FDD government, one of the key hardliners of the close allies of President Nkurunziza,” says Sarah Jackson, deputy regional director for Amnesty International, referring to the ruling party.

Mr. Mbonimpa “is one of the last remaining human rights activists who’s been working in Burundi during the crisis,” she says. “The fact that Pierre-Claver has been targeted also suggests that the ante has been upped.”

Bujumbura residents say that arms are proliferating among civilians, with shooting through the night in many neighborhoods. They fear Nkurunziza’s inauguration on Aug. 26 will trigger widespread violence.

“From that day there is risk of beginning of a new session of war,” says Spageon Ngabo, a civil society youth leader and student at the national university. “Always during the night there are guns that are being shot.… There is a permanent risk of explosion.”

Mr. Ngabo says guns are everywhere, and news and rumors of shootings fly by Facebook and WhatsApp daily. Everyone is waiting to see what the opposition will do on inauguration day.

“The neighborhoods where people took a strong stance against the third term and where youth appear to be increasingly armed” are being watched with particular anxiety, Ms. Jackson says, declining to speculate who is providing the arms.

Also worrisome is a recent statement from defected generals who fled the country that they’re planning a rebellion.

“It’s possible that there could be a descent into violence, and in the Great Lakes region that violence can take on different proportions,” she says. “It can become mass violence. At the moment, what we’re seeing is targeted attacks, and what we’re seeing is a situation that could quite quickly spiral out of control.”

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