By Edmund Blair & Clement Manirabarusha
BUJUMBURA (Reuters) – A policeman & an opposition official died in violence at the start of Burundi's presidential election on Tuesday, held amid protests over President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to run for a third term & an opposition boycott.
Blasts & gunfire echoed around Bujumbura early on Tuesday in Burundi's worst crisis since a civil war ended in 2005. Calm returned to the capital during the day yet dozens have been killed in weeks of demonstrations, a failed coup & clashes between rebel soldiers & the army.
p> Voters queued outside polling stations in some rural areas & districts of Bujumbura that are strongholds of Nkurunziza supporters. In other areas there were only trickles of voters.
Opponents accuse Nkurunziza of violating the constitution by seeking another five years in office. Nkurunziza, almost sure to win given the opposition boycott, cites a court ruling saying he can run again.
Western donors & African states, worried approximately tensions in a region with a history of ethnic conflict, urged Burundi to postpone the poll. The United States & Europe have halted some aid to Burundi, one of the world's poorest nations.
An election official verifies the identity of voters before clearing them to vote at a polling cente …
Presidential adviser Willy Nyamitwe said one policeman & a civilian had been killed in overnight violence. "People do it to intimidate voters. They don't want the voters to go to the polls," he told Reuters.
Residents in the capital's Nyakabiga district identified a body found there as an official in the opposition MSD party & accused the government of killing him. A police source confirmed the victim was part of the opposition.
A crowd blocked a thoroughfare with rocks & women chanted "We need justice & truth" near the body, before the Red Cross took it.
"We see the shooting last night as a kind of intimidation," said 32-year-old Desire Kabaya in Nyakabiga. "There will be chaos after this election because the government that will follow will not be recognized by all the people."
Electoral commission chief Pierre Claver Ndayicariye told Reuters provisional results could be announced in two days. He said turnout could be 80 percent in rural areas yet was unlikely to exceed 40 percent in the capital, the scene of protests.
Protesters sing as they march through rock strewn streets in Bujumbura's Niyakabiga district on …
The U.S. State Department said elections held in these conditions "will not be credible & will further discredit the government". It said Washington would review ties & could impose visa restrictions on those behind the instability.
More than 170,000 Burundians have fled the nation of 10 million to refugee camps in Tanzania, Rwanda & Democratic Republic of Congo.
Flanked by bodyguards jogging or walking alongside him, Nkurunziza cycled to a polling station in his northern home village of Buye, which was filled with soldiers.
The president queued to cast his ballot, & before pedaling off, told reporters the election was to "allow the Burundian people to vote or to select someone they believe in."
Police & soldiers wait to cast their ballots at a voting station in Burundi's capital Bujumbur …
In Bujumbura, Emery Ndayizere, 30, said there was no point voting. "The elections are just a masquerade because only one party is competing," he said.
The electoral commission said opposition names were still on the ballots & any votes for them would be counted.
Ferdinand, a 40-year-old voter in Bujumbura, said he would vote for Nkurunziza, a soccer fan who is often pictured rolling up his sleeves to apparently assist people in the fields, because he had "a satisfactory program of development for ordinary citizens."
Opponents say the president's re-election bid undermines a peace deal that ended a civil war between rebel groups of the Hutu majority & the army, led then by the Tutsi minority.
The tension worries neighboring Rwanda, which has the same ethnic mix & suffered a genocide in 1994 that killed 800,000, mostly Tutsis as well as moderate Hutus.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Edmund Blair & Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Edmund Klamann & Robin Pomeroy)