By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council on Thursday extended a U.N. political mission in Burundi until the end of the year, despite initial government opposition amid the worst political crisis in the East African country since a 12-year civil war ended in 2005.
Burundi had wanted the world body to leave within six months of the February 15 expiry of the mission's mandate, arguing it would demonstrate the country's political maturity and encourage investment in the world's fourth most aid-dependent state.
But U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended the mission be renewed for a year, noting in a recent report that elections, planned for June 2015, could be a trigger for fresh violence.
A compromise was reached with Burundi's government for the U.N. political mission to be extended until December 31, when it will transition to a scaled-down U.N. country team, which coordinates the aid and development work of U.N. agencies.
Some Security Council members hope Burundi can be persuaded to allow the U.N. political mission, known as BNUB, to stay until after the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections.
"We urge the government not to attempt to go at it alone through this crucial and sensitive electoral period, but to welcome the partnership and support of the international community through this U.N. presence," U.S. deputy U.N. Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis told the council after the vote.
"While acknowledging the significant progress in peace, stability and development, the current political stalemate and heightened tensions point to a continuing need for the United Nations office in Burundi," he said.
Three ministers from the Tutsi-led Uprona party quit the ruling coalition last week after President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose majority party CNDD-FDD - led by ethnic Hutus - sacked his Tutsi vice president, also from Uprona.
'BURY THE HATCHET'
The row has centered on constitutional amendments proposed by the president that could allow him a third term and change power-sharing arrangements. Opponents say the steps threaten to marginalize minorities, such as the Tutsis who make up about 15 percent of the country's 10 million people.
In a unanimously adopted resolution, the 15-member Security Council asked Ban to establish a U.N. electoral observer mission to monitor the situation before, during and after the 2015 elections, as requested by Burundi's government.
The council also "calls upon the government of Burundi to take further necessary steps to prevent human rights violations, in particular reported extrajudicial killings, mistreatment of detainees and torture, and restrictions on civil liberties ... limitations on the freedom of press, of expression."
Despite relative calm in recent years, rights groups have reported scores of political killings, intimidation of the opposition and a crackdown on media freedoms since Nkurunziza's re-election in 2010.
Burundi's U.N. Ambassador Hermenegilde Niyonzima thanked council members for their concern, saying: "I would, however, like to reassure you that Burundians have ... decided once and for all to bury the hatchet."
"The apparent differences between politicians in Burundi and in civil society should not worry you unduly because very often these are political exaggerations that are linked to the democratic learning process," he said.
Niyonzima added that political parties, the media, trade unions and aid groups were free to express themselves.
"The state very rarely intervenes and only in extreme cases to ensure public order," he said.
(Additional reporting by Richard Lough, editing by G Crosse)