KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — The group stoking fear among many Burundians includes stick-wielding men who sing patriotic tunes. The youth wing of Burundi's ruling party is also threatening and sometimes killing opposition members with impunity, a human rights watchdog group said Tuesday.
One of the poorest countries in the world, the small Central African nation of Burundi shares both a history of ethnic strife and a border with Rwanda, where an overzealous group called the Interahamwe, a group of extremist Hutu youth, helped to orchestrate 1994's genocidal bloodbath that killed more than 800,000 people.
Although Burundi has been showing signs of economic progress and improved security after years of strife, watchdog groups say the country is on edge amid the rise of a violent youth group that appears to have the support of the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, which has held power since 2005.
In a report released Tuesday, Amnesty International warned of the threat posed by the Imbonerakure, whose members are accused of spearheading the clampdown on the opposition. The report urges the African Union to investigate the group's threat to peace and security.
Imbonerakure members are "responsible for intimidation, harassment and violence, attacking and even killing members of the political opposition with impunity," according to Amnesty, which notes that the situation could deteriorate further if opposition groups retaliate.
The report says an opposition member has recently been shot and killed by two soldiers acting on orders of an Imbonerakure member. Amnesty said there was a "worrying authoritarian drift in Burundi in 2014" and that rights activists and journalists are being restricted.
A leading Burundian rights activist, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, has been jailed since May after telling a radio station that young Burundians were being armed, given military uniforms and sent for military training in neighboring Congo, according to Human Rights Watch. The group said its dominant concern in Burundi has been "impunity for human rights abuses, particularly by state agents and youth of the ruling party."
Amnesty International's report cites a leaked internal cable sent in April by the U.N. office in Burundi that said two members of the military had supplied the Imbonerakure with weapons and uniforms.
The U.S. State Department updated its Burundi travel warning in April, saying there were "confirmed reports of armed groups operating in Burundi. Weapons are easy to obtain and some ex-combatants have turned to crime or political violence." That advisory also said gunfire and grenade attacks are common.
Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza, an ethnic Hutu who is serving his second term, is accused of trying to amend the constitution in order to get a third term in elections due next year, adding to the political tensions that some fear could boil over should that happen. Hutus make up 85 percent of the country; Tutsis make up about 15 percent.
Burundi erupted into civil war in 1993 following the assassination of the country's first ethnic Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye. That ensuing conflict, which underscored long-standing ethnic tensions between the country's Hutu and the Tutsi people, lasted until 2005, when Nkurunziza took over as president and embarked on a campaign of ethnic reconciliation and economic rehabilitation. In 2009, his government signed a peace agreement with Burundi's last rebel group, raising hopes of a return to a more durable peace.