By Edmund Blair
BUJUMBURA (Reuters) - A senior U.S. diplomat told Burundi's President, Pierre Nkurunziza, on Thursday that the east African country risks boiling over if it stifles political opposition, as protests against the president entered a fifth day.
Tom Malinowski, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, arrived in Burundi on Wednesday to try to help halt escalating unrest and defuse the country's biggest crisis in years, set off by Nkurunziza's decision to seek a third term in office.
About 100 protesters were in a standoff with police on the outskirts of the capital Bujumbura on Thursday, using smoldering tires, sticks and stones to barricade a road.
Protesters say Nkurunziza's decision to stand in the presidential election in June violates the constitution and jeopardizes a peace deal that has kept ethnic tensions in check since a civil war ended in 2005. The presidency says the protests are an "insurrection."
Malinowski said he told Nkurunziza during a meeting with the president that the government must allow peaceful criticism and room for political opposition.
"I left the president with the thought that this country with its very complicated and difficult history is like a boiling pot, and that if you try to put a lid on that pot it doesn't stop boiling. It risks boiling over," Malinowski told reporters after the meeting.
Nkurunziza told Malinowski that protests against him were illegal but that the opposition would not be restricted, according to presidential spokesman, Gervais Abayeho.
"(Nkurunziza) said political space would be respected and there is no restriction whatsoever to anybody who is engaged in political competition. Everyone has a role to play," Abayeho said.
Diplomats say escalating violence could reopen old wounds and trigger ethnic bloodletting.
The 12-year civil war pitted the army, then led by the ethnic Tutsi minority, against rebel groups of the majority Hutus. The army is now fully mixed, while the opposition includes coalitions of Hutus and Tutsis.
The constitution and Arusha peace accords limit the president to two terms in office, but Nkurunziza's supporters say he can run again because his first term, when he was picked by lawmakers and not elected, does not count.
(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Dominic Evans and Susan Fenton)