UGANDAN-led regional efforts to resolve Burundi's violent political crisis continued Thursday with the country's defence minister standing in for President Yoweri Museveni as mediator.
Regional heads of state appointed Museveni mediator last week in the hope of ending months of crisis sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to run for a controversial third term in elections due on July 21.
Ugandan Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga arrived in the capital Bujumbura on Thursday, a day after Museveni left saying he had secured a commitment from the government, opposition and civil society to negotiate "without interruption".
Delegates were due to begin talks on Thursday evening. Several round of prior talks, mediated by the United Nations, have however failed to resolve the central African nation's political crisis.
Opposition leader Agathon Rwasa has said no subject would be "taboo" but Pascal Nyabenda, president of Nkurunziza's ruling CNDD-FDD party, ruled out discussion of the key third-term issue.
The crisis began in late April when Nkurunziza announced his intention to stand for a third consecutive five-year term, despite a constitutional two-term limit, sparking months of turmoil and an attempted coup in mid-May.
Around 100 people have been killed in more than two months of protests, with over 158,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries, according to the UN.
Gunfire and grenade explosions have hit the capital in recent nights, as has been common in the past weeks. Burundian military sources also reported fresh clashes with rebels in a forested area in the north of the country and near the border with Rwanda.
Rebel Burundian soldiers, who attempted but failed to overthrow President Pierre Nkurunziza in a coup in mid-May, have already said they have been engaged in a recent spate of battles with the army in the region, saying they are fighting to force Nkurunziza to renounce his re-election bid.
According to a Burundian army source, rebels launched an attack on army positions in Cibitoke province. The source said 10 of the attackers were killed in the clashes and weapons were seized.
Burundian army spokesman Colonel Gaspard Baratuza also said at least 220 suspected rebels have been captured following a string of recent battles, and said there were continued reports of minor clashes in the north of the country and near the border with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
With the presidential election looming there are only a few days to seal a deal between the opposing sides. The government has so far rejected opposition demands for a further delay of the presidential vote.
Nkurunziza's ruling party scored a widely-expected landslide win in parliamentary polls held on May 29, but these were boycotted by the opposition and condemned internationally as not free and fair.
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Kiyonga in Burundi for crisis mediation