Communal elections begin

The election of communal councillors in Burundi began on Friday, amid reports of violence in the northwestern province of Bubanza.

State-owned Radio Burundi reported on Friday that incidences of violence and exchange of gunfire in Bubanza had caused local residents to flee.

The radio also reported gunfire in the province of Bujumbura Rural, which surrounds the capital, Bujumbura. It said security forces and peacekeepers from the UN Mission in Burundi, ONUB, had been deployed to the areas from which the gunshots came.

It added that reports also indicated that 14 polling stations in Bubanza's Rugazi Commune were still closed and that the residents were not voting.

The radio said at least three million voters had since early Friday morning headed to 6,000 polling stations countrywide to elect over 3,000 communal councillors.

The communal poll is the first in a series of four elections designed to usher in democracy in the country that has experienced 11 years of civil war. An estimated 300,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands others displaced as a result of the conflict, which pitted mainly Hutu rebel movements against the minority Tutsi-dominated army and government.

On Wednesday, the UN Special Representative to Burundi and head of ONUB, Carolyn McAskie, appealed to Burundians to ensure that the elections were peaceful.

In a statement, ONUB reported that McAskie told Burundians that successful elections could be guaranteed if the country's electoral commission, or CENI, was responsible and if the government undertook to move the process forward.

"ONUB hopes that neither CENI nor the government will issue any instructions that contradict the electoral code," McAskie said.

She added that successful elections would also depend on the independence and neutrality of provincial electoral commissions, which, according to the country's electoral code, are responsible for announcing election results in the provinces.

"Every effort should be made to prevent election fraud," McAskie said.

She decried the threats made by certain people to derail the process if they were not favoured by the election results.

"I am utterly disappointed to hear people saying that they would take up arms again if they lose," McAskie said.

She said ONUB was taking every measure possible to guard against any situations that may get out of hand.

"The police force, the army and the UN work together to provide security for the elections. We will be everywhere and we will work side by side," McAskie said.

She said the day of the communal elections was an important day for Burundi.

"The world is watching you. You must show that you are mature, that the period of conflict is a thing of the past, and that you are entering a period of lasting peace," McAskie said.