Burundi dismisses global alarm over threats to crush opponents

Nairobi (AFP) - Burundi said Saturday 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 world leaders voiced concern over a government escalation of already strident rhetoric, warning 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-Shebab in Somalia," referring to the Islamist insurgents that Burundi troops are fighting as part of an internationally-backed African Union force.

"It is amazing to see that a government that wants to put an end to terrorism is criticised instead of being encouraged," he added.

International alarm has grown after the government issued a five-day deadline which expires this weekend for civilians to hand over weapons or face a new regime crackdown.

The US State Department on Saturday warned the "inflammatory rhetoric deployed in recent days by some government officials and President Nkurunziza?s planned security crackdown this weekend are increasing the risk of an outbreak of mass violence."

But Nyamitwe said 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' -

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 "pulverise" regime opponents who do not lay down arms before the deadline which expires later on Saturday.

"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.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that 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 said it was ready to prosecute the instigators of any large-scale violence.

- 'Panic has set in' -

Bujumbura was reportedly relatively calm on Saturday, although tensions remain high, and many people are fleeing their homes after the government warnings.

"Burundians take these warnings seriously, having seen relatives, friends and neighbours shot dead by the police during nightly raids," HRW added.

"Panic has set in, and some residents of Bujumbura have been packing up their belongings and fleeing."

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

Blaise Celestin Ndihokubwayo, who works for the private radio Isanganiro, was arrested just 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.