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Rwanda to Vote Next Week on Presidential Term Limits

FILE - Rwandan President Paul Kagame attends session at the Clinton Global Initiative, New York.

Rwanda is set to vote next week on a constitutional amendment that will allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third term in 2017, and potentially to remain in power until 2034.

The Rwandan government announced late Tuesday that the referendum will be held on December 17 for Rwandans living abroad and on December 18 for those living in Rwanda.

The referendum asks for approval of a proposed amendment that would shorten presidential terms to five years rather than seven, but would also make an exception for Kagame, who has been in power since 2000. Current law requires Kagame to step down at the end of 2017. But the amendment would allow him to run for a third seven-year term and two more five-year terms after that. If he continued to win elections, it would allow Kagame to stay in power until 2034.

The referendum is forecast to pass easily.

The 58-year-old Kagame, an ethnic Tutsi, commanded the rebel force that ended the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 and ousted Hutu extremists from power.

Kagame served as vice president and minister of defense under President Pasteur Bizimungu from 1994 until Bizimungu's resignation in 2000. He has served as president since 2000.

Kagame is popular inside Rwanda, but critics accuse him of suppressing free speech and having no tolerance for dissent.

The U.S. State Department said last month that Kagame should step down as scheduled and help "foster a new generation of leaders in Rwanda." The spokesman making the statement, Mark Toner, did not say what steps the U.S. would consider if Kagame tries to hold on to power.

Efforts by leaders in other African countries to extend their rule, including Burkina Faso, Burundi and Senegal, have led to violence.