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Is Burundi Headed for Civil War?

Men carry a body in the Nyakabiga neighborhood of Bujumbura, Burundi, where a number of people were found shot dead a day after the government said an unidentified group had carried out attacks on three military installations, Dec. 12, 2015.

Burundi could be headed for civil war, or so warns the international community.

"Tensions are now at bursting point in Bujumbura,” Cecile Pouilly, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, said Tuesday.

Violence reached a fresh peak last Friday and Saturday when unidentified armed men attacked three military bases in the capital. At least 87 people were killed. Security forces rounded up hundreds of young men, executing some of them, according to witnesses.

"If there is no regionally mediated dialogue, the likely scenarios include a new coup attempt, the emergence of a guerrilla force in the countryside and a large-scale repression against the rebellious districts of Bujumbura,” Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa director of the International Crisis Group, told U.S. lawmakers in Washington just two days before the attack.

Division in military

Opposition to President Pierre Nkurunziza's third term in office has divided Burundi's military. More than two dozen military and police officials are on trial for a May coup attempt, while some others are believed to have defected into the bush.

Loyalist security forces, along with pro-ruling-party militia members, are accused of torturing and killing perceived opponents of the regime since the start of protests in April, something the government denies. However, rights investigators sent to Burundi by the African Union said in findings released Tuesday that the escalation of violence was "of great concern."

The president won re-election in July in a vote that the opposition boycotted.

Twenty-something truck driver Clavier (not his real name) was among the tens of thousands of Burundians who took to the streets in April. He lived in Kamenge, a pro-government area, but had to move.

"One afternoon they went to my house, burned everything and chased me away from the neighborhood. They did that just because they saw me in protests,” Clavier said.

He has joined one of dozens of youth militias that have sprung up since November, patrolling opposition areas and clashing with police.

"I am not afraid to die. Even If I go back home, they will kill me. Dying here, fighting for a cause, it’s not a problem,” he said.

Constitutional issue

The president's opponents say his third term in office violates the constitution and the Arusha Accords that ended a brutal 13-year civil war in which 300,000 people died.

Some roots of the current political crisis can be traced to the last polls in 2010, said Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group.

"The opposition only participated in the communal elections and boycotted the national ones, charging the government with unfairly tilting the playing field,” Vircoulon said.

Since then, the government has been cracking down on political opponents and civil society groups, regional political observers say.

Now authorities are trying to pick and choose the people whom they will negotiate with, said Pancrase Cimpanye, deputy spokesman of Burundi's opposition alliance CNARED, whose leaders are mostly in exile.

"When you need to negotiate, you need to negotiate with your enemy, not with your friends,” Cimpanye said, adding that international mediation is essential.

"The African Union is silent, and the East African Community bloc is not doing anything. If some people are busy — for example, like the Ugandan president — other facilitators can take over and start talks," he said.

Museveni distracted?

The East African Community regional bloc appointed President Yoweri Museveni in July to mediate talks, but some say the Ugandan leader has been distracted by his own re-election bid in February. A Ugandan official told the Associated Press on Tuesday that they were looking for a neutral venue at which to hold the meeting.

Analysts say the lack of dialogue over the past eight months has radicalized some, but not most, of the opposition. However, the sharp increase in attacks against security forces and government targets since November is further complicating the path to peace.

"Let us all remember [U.N.] Resolution 2248 clearly says that only peaceful stakeholders will take part in those talks, which of course excludes all those people who have decided to resort to violence as a means to have political gains,” Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Nyamitwe told VOA.