The UN Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution strongly condemning increasing killings, torture and human rights violations in Burundi and threatening possible sanctions against those contributing to the violence.
The vote on Thursday followed an urgent call by international leaders for a meeting of Burundi's government and opposition amid fears the country is at risk of a Rwanda-like genocide.
The resolution asked Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to deploy a team to Burundi to work with the government, African Union and other partners to "develop options to address political and security concerns".
"The Security Council must fully embrace its role of prevention... and not let the genie of ethnic violence out of the bottle," French Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters.
Matthew Rycroft, British ambassador to the UN, described Thursday's resolution as "an important step forward".
He added: "It sends a united signal to all parties in Burundi to engage in dialogue and refrain from inciting violence."
Meanwhile, a joint statement by the UN, EU and AU on Thursday called for a meeting of representatives of Burundi's government and opposition in Addis Ababa, where the AU is based, or Kampala, Uganda’s capital. A regional bloc has nominated Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to mediate the crisis, but the talks have not started.
The joint statement warned of "the threat for many more lives and a deep regional crisis" and said the organizations agreed to "work closely together and to mobilize all our means and instruments to prevent a further deterioration of the situation".
At least 240 people have been killed since President Pierre Nkurunziza launched a controversial bid to prolong his term in office in April. More than 210,000 people have fled the country since then.
France took the lead on Monday by circulating the draft resolution, which threatens sanctions against Burundian leaders who incite attacks or impede peace efforts.
But a final draft released on Wednesday was watered down, stating instead the council was prepared to consider "appropriate measures" without specifying if targeted sanctions were on the table.
RELATED: Rwanda says Burundi leaders 'killing own people'
The amendments were to address concerns from Russia and some African countries that sanctions would not be helpful to efforts to prevent a bloodbath.
UN officials are drawing up plans to rush peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the landlocked central African country if the violence spirals out of control.
The 20,000-strong Monusco force in the Democratic Republic of Congo is backed up by a rapid-reaction brigade made up of elite troops from South Africa, Malawi, and Tanzania that could also be deployed.
Another possibly more likely scenario is to dispatch a regional African force.
"The use of Monusco assets and personnel has been mentioned as one possible option," said a UN spokesman for peacekeeping. "While this is ultimately a matter for the Security Council to decide, a regional coalition would be well-placed to provide a rapid and credible response if the situation in Burundi worsens."
In Pictures: Post-election crisis escalates in Burundi
US President Barack Obama, in a phone call with South African President Jacob Zuma on Wednesday, expressed "deep concern" about the situation in Burundi, the White House said.
Obama asked Zuma "to continue to work with other regional actors to call for calm and press for a dialogue that can bring about a long-term solution to the crisis", the White House said in a statement.
| Burundians flee capital in run-up to crackdown