BUJUMBURA- The central African nation of Burundi was plunged deeper into a political crisis Wednesday after the three government ministers from the main Tutsi party resigned.
The walkout by the Uprona party members upsets an increasingly delicate power-sharing arrangement between Burundi's majority Hutu and minority Tutsi communities, who are still struggling to reconcile after decades of conflict.
The Uprona party said District Development Minister Jean-Claude Ndihokubwayo, Communications Minister Leocadie Nihaza and Trade Minister Victoire Ndikumana had all quit.
"We refuse to cohabit with the ruling party of President Pierre Nkurunziza, which is going out of its way to destroy us," Uprona spokesman Tatien Sibomana told AFP.
The resignations follow an attempt by the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, to force out Uprona party chairman Charles Nditije ahead of elections scheduled for 2015, and replace him with a sympathiser.
Uprona is the only Burundian grouping other than the CNDD-FDD not to have boycotted the 2010 elections. The other parties complained that the vote was marred by rigging.
In addition to the three ministers, Uprona had a vice-president in government, but he was removed by Nkurunziza on Saturday after he opposed the party change.
Over the past few months Uprona has become increasingly critical of the ruling party over sensitive issues such as a possible third term for Nkurunziza, the revision of the constitution and the distribution of land.
Several observers see the crisis as having been sparked by Nkurunziza's desire to stay on in office despite a constitutional limit set at two terms.
"President Nkurunziza will stop at nothing to get a third term in office," said Pacifique Nininahazwe, a prominent civil society leader.
Tensions over land also run high in densely-populated Burundi, where successive waves of Hutus and Tutsis returning from exile have often laid claim to the same plots. The government body tasked with resolving land disputes has been accused in recent months of a pro-Hutu bias.
The constitution is similarly sensitive as -- after decades of large-scale ethnic massacres -- it guarantees power sharing between the Hutu majority, which represents 85 percent of the population, and the Tutsi minority.
Presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe however dismissed the idea that the president and his party "had played any role in the Uprona crisis" conceding only that there had been "crises and misunderstandings".
He said Nkurunziza has not yet declared himself a candidate for the next polls, saying: "Let's wait for 2015 and the opening of the electoral lists."
A foreign diplomat, who asked not to be named, warned that the crisis could escalate.
"The situation is very worrying, because an attack on Uprona is an attack on the Tutsi community," said the diplomat.
"The frightening thing is that a lot of people consider that the ruling party has broken the delicate balance put in place in this country, and that is extremely serious."
Burundi's history is marred by bitter ethnic killings, with massacres in 1972 and 1988, as well as civil war.