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Published: Monday February 17, 2014 MYT 3:20:02 AM
Updated: Monday February 17, 2014 MYT 3:20:52 AM

Burundi police try to stop party meeting as crisis deepens - witnesses

BUJUMBURA (Reuters) - Riot police tried to stop a meeting of Burundi's junior coalition party on Sunday, officials and witnesses said, firing teargas, clashing with members and exacerbating a political crisis in the tiny East African country.

Officers surrounded the headquarters of the Tutsi-led UPRONA party - the minority member of a government set up under power-sharing arrangements to keep ethnic tensions in check after a 12-year civil war ended in 2005.

Members arriving for a meeting to vote on party leaders found their way blocked and at least three of them were wounded as they tried to force their way through the cordon, witnesses told Reuters.

Police fired teargas to disperse UPRONA members gathered outside the building and at least two officers were also wounded, said people at the scene.

Burundi's interior minister, Edouard Nduwimana, told Reuters that police had intervened to stop an illegal gathering, without going into further details.

But UPRONA officials accused the authorities of trying to spread divisions in the party and prevent the election of leaders who have been involved in a political row with Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza and his majority Hutu-led CNDD-FDD party.

The row has centred on constitutional amendments proposed by the president that could allow him a third term and change power-sharing arrangements. Opponents, include many in UPRONA say the steps would marginalise minorities, such as the Tutsis.

UPRONA's three ministers quit the coalition administration earlier this month after the president sacked his Tutsi vice president, also from UPRONA.

The turmoil has triggered the worst political crisis since rebels laid down their arms in Burundi - a landlocked country neighbouring Rwanda where Hutu extremists targeted ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the 1994 genocide.

Burundi's political standoff has also raised the spectre of more unrest in a region already grappling with violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Tensions mounted on Friday when the president named a new deputy, Prosper Bazombanza, who despite being an UPRONA member, was opposed by many members of his own party.

UPRONA deputy chairman Evariste Ngayimpenda told Reuters the interior ministry had tried to stop Sunday's meeting to divide the party so that it could "work with a faction (of UPRONA) that will help the ruling party achieve its goal of changing the constitution."

"We will continue the fight against the constitutional review," he added.

UPRONA members said they eventually held their meeting in another building and confirmed Ngayimpenda and others in their posts.

(Reporting by Patrick Nduwimana; Editing by Drazen Jorgic and Andrew Heavens)

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