Catholic Church scraps support for Burundi polls, EU suspends mission

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Catholic Church says withdrawing support for Burundi elections

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Burundi's influential Catholic Church said Thursday it was withdrawing support for June elections in the crisis-hit country, as the EU announced it was also suspending its mission to observe the vote.

Both moves dealt fresh blows to President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid to run for a third consecutive term, which has sparked mass protests in the small central African nation.

A statement from Burundi's bishops said that "after considering the manner in which the elections have been organised and the way they are evolving", the Church had asked priests who serve in electoral commissions across the central African nation to step down.

The European Union took similar action, deciding to suspending the deployment of its election observer mission.

"Conditions in Burundi do not allow for the holding of credible elections," said David Martin, the mission's chief observer, in a statement.

The announcements came the day after Burundi's main opposition parties said it was now "impossible" to hold free and fair elections. However sources said that the opposition and government had Thursday also resumed UN and African Union-mediated talks on the crisis.

Parliamentary elections are due to be held on June 5, with a presidential poll scheduled for June 26. The UN Security Council also met on the crisis late Wednesday, with most of its 15 members also supporting a postponement.

In the statement, read out on Catholic radio by Bishop Gervais Bashimiyubusa, the Church said it "cannot endorse an election riddled with shortcomings".

It nevertheless said people should vote, but stressed that nobody should go to the polls "by threat or intimidation, or because they have been bought in one way or another".

"In the eyes of God, that would be slavery to evil," Bashimiyubusa said.

A spokesman for Burundi's electoral commission, Prosper Ntahorwamiye, said the body had "taken note" of the decision but would "adapt" -- adding that electoral commissions would be able to continue to function.

The crisis surrounds Nkurunziza's uncompromising desire to stand for a third term in office, with opposition and rights groups saying the move violates the constitution as well as the terms of a peace deal that ended a 13-year civil war in 2006.

That conflict, marked by brutal ethnic violence between the country's ethnic Hutu and Tutsi communities, left hundreds of thousands of people dead, and there are fears the latest unrest could plunge the small, landlocked and impoverished nation back into widespread violence.

The crisis intensified earlier this month when a top general staged a failed coup attempt.

The Catholic Church has already spoken out against the president, saying it too has concluded his third-term bid goes against the peace deal.

- 'Elections not sustainable' -

Street protests have taken place for the past month, leaving at least 30 people dead after a violent crackdown by security forces. There were more protests on Thursday in several parts of the lakeside capital of Bujumbura, with a massive police presence along main roads.

Outside the capital, around 2,000 people attended the funeral of a teenager killed on Wednesday in Matana in the southern province of Bururi. Marchers at the head of the funeral carried placards proclaiming "No to a third mandate", witnesses said.

Talks between the rival camps resumed on Thursday, sources said, with both sides thought to be discussing the treatment of demonstrators and the possible reopening of independent media. The secret talks had been suspended last weekend after the murder of an opposition leader.

The UN Security Council heard a report from UN envoy Said Djinnit on the turmoil late Wednesday.

"The predominant opinion was that elections were not possible to carry out in the present circumstances," Lithuanian ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite told reporters in New York.

The ambassador said council members cited tensions in the country, growing unrest and refugee flows as signs that "elections would not be sustainable in that kind of context".

But the top UN body has been divided over how to address the crisis, with Russia arguing that the council should support efforts to help Burundians resolve the dispute themselves.

Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader and born-again Christian, argues that his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people. His bid for re-election also has strong support in rural areas and among sections of the Hutu majority.

Asked to rule on the issue of a third term, Burundi's constitutional court found in the president's favour, but not before one of the judges fled the country claiming its members had received death threats.

Analyst Willy Nindorera said the Church announcement was a major blow to the government -- which has had to appeal to "patriotic citizens" to donate money so the elections can be held after key international donors stopped their funding.

"The electoral process has already been hurt by a credibility deficit, and the Catholic Church, which is a very highly respected moral authority, has put the nail in the coffin," he said.