Hundreds of students seek refuge outside US embassy in Burundi

BUJUMBURA (Reuters) - Hundreds of students from a Burundi university shuttered by the government were seeking refuge outside the US embassy in the capital on Friday, amid unrest and escalating tensions ahead of the June 26 presidential vote.

The east African nation has been rocked by days of protests triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to seek a third term, a move opponents say violates the constitution and a peace deal that ended an ethnically charged civil war in 2005.

Citing security fears, the government on Wednesday closed University of Burundi, a prestigious institution where football-fanatic Nkurunziza taught physical education in the mid-1990s. Students said they left halls on Thursday but those from rural areas were unable to return home due to road blocks.

An official at the US embassy in Bujumbura said late on Thursday that hundreds of students were "seeking a safe refuge"and had lined the street next to the embassy compound. A witness said they were still there on Friday but did not give numbers.

The embassy spokesman had no immediate comment.

Tom Malinowski, US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour told Nkurunziza in a meeting on Thursday that the country risks "boiling over", especially if political space is closed for opponents.

"We have urged the government not to let the situation get past a point of no return, because if that happens the gains of the last decade really will be at risk," Malinowski told a news conference on Thursday, adding that there would be "consequences" if violence continues or gets out of hand.

Bujumbura suburbs, where five consecutive days of protests had taken place since Sunday, were generally calmer on Friday, a national Labour Day holiday.

The crisis is being closely watched in a region still scarred by the 1994 genocide that killed more than 800,000 people in neighbouring Rwanda, which like Burundi is divided between ethnic Tutsis and Hutus.

Burundi's electoral commission on Friday started accepting applications to stand for president, but it was not immediately clear if any opposition figures have submitted their bids. They have until May 9 to do so.

Diplomats say independent candidate Agathon Rwasa, who like Nkurunziza is a former Hutu rebel commander turned politician, stands the best chance of challenging the president.

Rwasa has trodden a cautious path during the protests that erupted on Monday, criticising the government's heavy-handed tactics and defending people's right to rally, but refraining from calling for mass protests.

Analysts say Rwasa does not wish to give the government, who term the protests an "insurrection" and illegal, a justification to detain him and exclude him from running for presidency.

The constitution and the Arusha peace accord limit the president to two terms in office, but Nkurunziza's supporters say he can run again because his first term, when he was picked by lawmakers and not elected, does not count.