KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — More than 5,800 Burundian refugees have crossed into Rwanda so far this month amid fears of violence before elections later this year, the United Nations refugee agency said Wednesday.
Failure to organize free and fair elections could spark a return to deadly violence in Burundi, warned a top U.N. rights official.
Presidential elections are scheduled for June 26 and President Pierre Nkurunziza has not publicly said if he will seek a third term.
Hundreds of Burundians are crossing the border daily, most of them children. At least 800 of the refugees arrived in Rwanda on Tuesday, the U.N. refugee agency said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press.
"We have ... observed a very sharp increase in arrivals in recent days, of which over 60 percent are children," said Saber Azam, the U.N. refugee agency's representative in Rwanda.
There is growing alarm among diplomats and observers "about the direction the country appears to be taking," United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein on Wednesday told reporters in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura.
"The country is at a crossroads," he said, warning that failure to hold free elections could return Burundi to what he called a "deeply troubled, tragic and horrendously violent past."
Also on Wednesday, the spokesman for U.N. secretary-general said Ban Ki-moon met with Burundi's interior minister, Edouard Nduwimana, on Tuesday and expressed concern about the rising political tensions. Ban urged that everyone be allowed to participate freely in the electoral process.
The Burundian refugees cite disappearances of relatives and pressure to pledge allegiance to the ruling party among reasons for fleeing their small East African country, said the UNHCR statement. Other refugees cite fear of a youth militia as elections approach in Burundi, said the refugee agency.
That militia, known as Imbonerakure, is made up of members of the ruling party's youth league and is often accused of violating human rights in northern Burundi. Human Rights Watch has accused the Imbonerakure of participating in the recent killing of at least 47 people in the northern province of Cibitoke.
The Cibitoke killings — between Dec. 30, 2014 and Jan. 3, 2015 — are "part of a broader pattern of extrajudicial executions" by Burundian security forces and the Imbonerakure, said the rights group.
Burundian authorities have denied the allegations, saying they are also investigating what happened in Cibitoke.