Violence in Burundi is in danger of escalating to mass atrocity crimes, the United Nations warned on Monday, but the tiny African state said it was "not in flames" and would work to allay fears of an impending genocide.
At least 240 people have been killed and tens of thousands have fled to neighbouring states, during months of violence that began when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided in April to run for a third term. He won a disputed election in July.
"Burundi finds itself in a deep political crisis and rapid escalation of violence that has serious implications for stability and ethnic harmony in Burundi," U.N. political affairs chief, Jeffrey Feltman, told the U.N. Security Council.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein and U.N. Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, both warned the council that Burundi could be facing imminent catastrophe.
"The country appears to be on the verge of a descent into violence that could escalate into atrocity crimes," said Dieng. "We should act before it is too late."
Burundi has plunged into its worst crisis since the end of a 12-year civil war in 2005, which pitted rebel groups from the majority Hutu ethnic group against the army, which at the time was led by the minority Tutsis.
"Recent inflammatory remarks by members of the government have suggested that this crisis, which has involved targeting people for their perceived political affiliations, could increasingly take on an ethnic dimension," Zeid said.
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, a neighbouring state that was torn apart by genocide in 1994 and shares the same ethnic mix, has implored Burundi to avoid sliding into ethnic conflict. Burundi dismissed Kagame's remarks as "indecent and unfair."
Some 800,000 people, most of them Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were massacred in Rwanda in 1994. Burundi is about 85 percent Hutu and 14 percent Tutsi.
Regional and world powers expressed concern that a Nov. 7 deadline set by Nkurunziza for Burundians to give up illegal weapons could spark widespread bloodshed. The president said those who did not hand over arms would be treated as criminals.
Presidential aide Willy Nyamitwe told Reuters on Monday the collection was going peacefully.
However, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday urged Burundian security forces to exercise restraint after seeing "troubling" reports that "several people, including a policeman, were killed during the ongoing forcible disarmament campaign."
Ban also condemned an attack on a Bujumbura bar that killed at least nine people on Saturday, including a U.N. staff member, and urged a full government investigation.
Burundi's Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Nyamitwe told the Security Council on Monday: "Burundi is not in flames, there are certain acts of crime attempting to attract the attention of the international community but they are being reined in."
"The government remains ready to work further with its partners ... so that first there be no longer fear that there would be a genocide," he said.
France circulated a draft resolution to council members on Monday that would express the body's intention to consider targeted sanctions and ask Ban to report back on options for strengthening the U.N. presence in Burundi, where there is currently a U.N. country team of agencies, funds and programmes.
However, Russia's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Petr Iliichev said on Monday that sanctions would not help.