Burundian police shot and killed six people, while 35 others were wounded, as they tried to disperse followers of a cult leader who claims to see apparitions of the Virgin Mary.
Zebiya Ngendakumana, 30, claims to see the visions of the Virgin Mary on the 12th of each month, and hundreds of followers gathered for the monthly spectacle in Businde, in the Gahombo commune of the Kanyanza region.
I went outdoors during the night and saw a light that was almost blinding. I then saw a white lady
With a growing cult-like followership, police raised public order concerns and descended on Kanyanza region where they tried to disperse the crowd, resulting in running battles.
However, police efforts turned awry, resulting in an altercation between the force and the faithful.
Hundreds of the sect's members, some "armed with clubs and stones", resisted police attempts to prevent them from meeting on a hilltop on Tuesday, reports from the East African nation said.
"The police ordered believers of the sect to leave the place but they started throwing stones at them, so the police opened fire," Kayanza governor, Athanase Mbonabuca said.
"There were violent clashes. At least six people are dead and 35 wounded," Mbonabuca added.
The police have since said they regretted the incident, saying the matter could have been handled differently.
"We regret the incident," police deputy spokesman, Pierre Nkurikiye told AFP, as he confirmed the deaths of the six.
Observers say the clampdown came after the local police sided with the Ngozi Diocese of the local Catholic Church, which wants Ngendakumana stopped.
"We formally forbid any sect in Businde. We demand that Miss Eusebie and her followers stop all activities that harm the integrity and communion of the church" Catholic Bishop of Ngozi, Monsignor Gervais Banshimiyubusa was quoted saying last November.
The majority of Burundi's 8 million population is Catholic and conservative, meaning such cults are hugely frowned upon.
Last year, the police destroyed a sanctuary of the sect in Kayanza - its stronghold - and its followers retaliated by breaking up a Sunday service at a local Catholic church.
The government has been uneasy at the emergence of Ngendakumana's cult, which came to the fore more than a year ago, while the local Catholic Church has distanced itself from it.
On her part, Ngendakumana says she began seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary 20 years ago.
"It was before I turned 10. I went outdoors during the night and saw a light that was almost blinding. I then saw a white lady, a crown on her head. She was above the terrestrial globe," she said in a recent interview with Iwacu, a local paper.
She says she continued seeing the apparition from then, but it was not until 1996 that she "saw Jesus" as well.
The one-time farmer has so far been to neighbouring Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia on a crusade about her visions.
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