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Over 2,500 Burundi Refugees in Congo Seek Shelter in Rwanda

FILE - Burundian refugee children stand in the mud near to tents holding hundreds of other refugees who have fled from Burundi, at the Gashora refugee camp, in the Bugesera district of Rwanda, April 21, 2015.

More than 2,500 Burundian refugees in Congo are seeking shelter in Rwanda because of fears they could be forcibly repatriated back home by Congolese authorities, according to a Rwandan official.

Most of the refugees had lived in Congo since 2015, when political violence erupted in Burundi over the president's decision to seek a disputed third term, Jean Claude Rwahama, a refugee official in Rwanda, said Thursday.

"We are still verifying the exact number of refugees but as we speak at least 2,579 of refugees have arrived in Rwanda," he said, adding that Rwanda is temporarily sheltering them at Bugarama refugee center near the Burundi border.

Francoise Ndayisenga, a leader among the refugees, said they were seeking asylum in Rwanda because they don't want to be forcibly sent back to Burundi. Nearly all the refugees are followers of a self-styled Catholic prophetess named Zebiya Ngendakumana, who is believed to be among the refugees seeking asylum in Rwanda. Citing their religious beliefs, the refugees have refused to have their fingerprints taken by refugee officials.

Roughly 44,000 refugees from Burundi are sheltering in Congo.

In September 2017, 36 Burundian refugees were killed by Congolese troops while protesting the expulsion of four of their countrymen from Congo. The U.N. called for a swift investigation into the killings and urged Congo's security forces to use force as a last resort.

The refugees' arrival in Rwanda coincides with a rise in militia violence in Congo's restive east.

Congolese President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled since 2001, was due to step down at the end of his second term in December 2016 but the vote was postponed while he remains in office. The election has sparked regular protests in which the security forces are accused of killing dozens of people.