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US Threatens Sanctions on Burundian Spoilers

Protesters opposed to President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to seek a third term in office shout at the army after a demonstrator was shot dead in the Kinama district of Bujumbura, Burundi, May 7, 2015.

The United States threatened Friday to impose sanctions on individuals in Burundi who are fueling election-related violence.

Following the third meeting in the past month on the escalating violence in Burundi, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said the government of Burundi has a window of opportunity to bring the violence to a halt, telling reporters that the international community is urging President Pierre Nkurunziza to put his people ahead of his personal desire to seek re-election.

The announcement came shortly after Nkurunziza officially registered to run for a third term.

"I think the message from the international community was loud and clear, and it is a message he has chosen not to hear," she said.

Opposition parties and protesters say that by seeking a third term, the president is violating a two-term limit in the constitution.

The constitutional court ruled otherwise on Tuesday. But Power said a "lack of judicial impartiality" led to that decision, pointing to the testimony of the court's vice president, who fled to Rwanda this week after saying judges were facing pressure and even death threats.

The U.S. envoy said Washington is ready to take a firm stance against those behind recent street fighting in Burundi's capital.

"The United States is very carefully monitoring the situation and we are prepared to take targeted measures, including visa bans or sanctions, against those who plan or participate in widespread violence of the kind that we all fear," she said.

The U.N. refugee agency says since pre-election violence erupted late last month, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, have fled Burundi to neighboring Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Power said the violence must be stopped and peaceful protests allowed.

"To date, neither President Nkurunziza nor his government has condemned the violence by the youth militia or called for restraint by the police," she said. "We urge them do so immediately. Failure to take these steps will only heighten the scale of violence and increase the risk of this turning into a regional crisis."

The United Nations has dispatched Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region Said Djinnit to Burundi, where he is working with stakeholders in an effort to stabilize the situation.

African leaders are also trying to calm the political tensions. Next week, leaders from the five-nation East Africa Community will meet in Tanzania to discuss the situation.