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The seat of Burundi delegation is pictured before a special session of the Human Rights Council on the situation in Burundi in Geneva, Switzerland on December 17, 2015.DENIS BALIBOUSE/Reuters

With experts warning that Burundi is dangerously close to full-scale civil war and mass atrocities, the African Union is reportedly considering an unprecedented plan to send 5,000 troops into the country.

Canada and the United States this week urged their citizens to leave Burundi while commercial flights are still available. Burundi is now "on the cusp of a full-blown civil war," United Nations human-rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said on Thursday.

Human-rights groups such as Amnesty International issued equally dire warnings about the risk of war. One rights group, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), said about 300 young men have been arrested in their homes in Burundi in recent days, and about half were summarily executed, with the rest still missing.

At least 400 people have been killed since the crisis began in April, including at least 87 killed in a single day of violence last Friday, the worst so far. Nearly 3,500 have been arrested, and more than 220,000 refugees have fled the country.

In a special session on the Burundi crisis on Thursday, the African Union heard top officials give updates on "contingency plans" for deploying an African military force to Burundi. "Africa will not allow another genocide to take place on its soil," the AU said.

The AU did not officially release the decision from the session, but a Rwandan diplomat said the AU had decided to deploy 5,000 soldiers and police to Burundi on a "prevention and protection mission" for at least six months. Burundi will be given four days to decide whether to accept the mission, according to tweets by Rwandan diplomat Olivier Nduhungirehe, who said he was speaking in his personal capacity but gave a detailed account of the decision.

The Burundi government says it opposes any foreign peacekeepers or military intervention on its territory, but the AU says it could deploy the force even if Burundi refuses, using an emergency clause in its charter. If it does so, it would be the first time the AU has sent troops into a country without being invited.

The AU said its members are still consulting their governments before a final decision is made on intervention.

Former Canadian governor-general Michaëlle Jean, now the head of the Francophonie, is among those who have voiced alarm at the rapidly deteriorating situation in Burundi. On Sunday, she tweeted a photo of dead bodies lying on the streets of the capital, Bujumbura. "Disturbing new cycle of violence in Burundi," she said in French. "This unacceptable situation must stop."

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said the Canadian government is "deeply concerned" by the "escalating violence and incidents of brutality" in recent days. "We are also alarmed by the high number of victims killed under circumstances that remain unclear," he said.

The crisis began in April when Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced a legally dubious bid for a third term in office. Weeks of protests followed, and the conflict became increasingly violent. Police have fired bullets at protesters, military officers have attempted a coup, and insurgents have attacked military bases.

In November alone, as many as 68 people were summarily executed in Burundi, according to Mr. Al Hussein, the UN human-rights chief, who warned of potential "atrocities" and criticized the evidence of torture and impunity.

The death toll last Friday may have been considerably higher than the 87 that the government reported, he said. "Last Friday's events are a shocking manifestation of what happens when a country is at a boiling point and ready to tip over with any instigation," he said. "The situation needs urgent, concerted, decisive attention from the international community."

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