BUJUMBURA Burundi's constitutional court on Tuesday cleared the way for President Pierre Nkurunziza to bid for a third term in office, angering protesters on the streets of the capital who are demanding he back down.
Police fired shots in the air and tear gas to disperse a group of about 75 demonstrators approaching the U.S. embassy, an embassy statement said, noting that it had not asked for help.
The opposition says Nkurunziza's plan to stand in a June election violates the constitution and a peace deal that ended a 1993-2005 war between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority.
More than a week of protests have plunged the African nation into its worst crisis since that conflict. Civil society groups say a dozen people have been killed, while more than 30,000 have fled to neighboring states fearing more ethnic violence.
"The renewal of the presidential term through direct universal suffrage for five years is not against the constitution of Burundi," a court statement said.
The government urged protesters to accept the ruling and stop "illegal" protests.
But opposition parties and protesters have denounced it.
"The first term we accepted. The second term we accepted. We will never accept the third term," the demonstrators shouted outside a hotel where ministers met opposition leaders, civil society groups and diplomats. Police soon pushed them away.
The constitution and Arusha peace deal limit the president to two terms. But the court, in a seven-page statement, included the point that the president’s first term in which he was not elected by popular vote was transitional so should not count.
"We don't care about the constitutional court decision because we know this court is manipulated," said Jean Minani, leader of Frodebu-Nyakuri party, part of one coalition behind the protests. He said rallies would not stop until the president backed down.
Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader, says the demonstrations are an "insurrectional movement".
Civil society groups say at least 12 people have been killed so far in clashes in which police have fired tear gas, water cannon and, say protesters, live rounds at demonstrators.
Police, who put the toll at six, including three members of the security forces, say protesters have hurled grenades.
The flare-ups in Burundi threaten wider repercussions in a region with a history of ethnic conflict and where other presidents are also facing term-limit deadlines soon.
Rwanda's Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said she was concerned about the unrest in Burundi, which shares the same ethnic mix as Rwanda where a 1994 genocide killed 800,000 people, most of them Tutsis as well as moderate Hutus.
"While we respect Burundi’s sovereignty in addressing internal matters, Rwanda considers the safety of innocent population as a regional and international responsibility,” she said in a statement, urging the government to restore peace.
Rwanda, which has vowed to prevent another genocide in the region, could be drawn into the conflict if ethnic fighting erupts and Tutsis become targets, diplomats say.
At least 24,000 mostly Tutsis have fled to Rwanda in recent weeks as tensions have mounted. About 7,000 people have also crossed into neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in the region for talks, said in Nairobi on Monday that the decision to seek a third term "flies directly in the face" of Burundi's constitution.
The United States provides training, equipment and other support worth about $80 million a year to Burundi's army. The European Union, which has also pushed for the president not to stand again, is the biggest contributor to the budget.
(Additional reporting by Clement Uwiringiyimana in Kigali; Writing by Edith Honan; Editing by Louise Ireland)