Organizers of an international robotics competition in Washington, D.C. believe the disappearance of six teens from Burundi may have been "self-initiated." The teenagers participated in the same tournament as the all-female Afghan robotics team who were denied visas to enter the U.S. until the Trump administration intervened.
As the FIRST Global Challenge competition was wrapping up Tuesday, their chaperone discovered his kids were missing. He looked in the college dorms where the six teens — ages 16 to 18 — had been staying. Their bags were packed and gone. Officers swept through DAR Constitution Hall, but they were nowhere to be found.
Police now say that two of the six were seen crossing into Canada, and they don't suspect foul play with any of them.
The team's coach, Canesius Bindaba, told The Washington Post he had heard rumors the teens might be planning to stay in the United States. Speaking over WhatsApp from Kenya, a stop on his trip home, Bindaba said he hoped the rumors weren't true.
"I just tried to build some kind of trust, hoping they were just rumors," he said. "I feel cheated and disappointed by those who planned this behind my back."
Police in D.C. posted missing-person fliers Wednesday asking for help finding the teens, who had last been seen around the time of Tuesday's final matches.
Don Ingabire, 16, and Audrey Mwamikazi, 17, were later seen crossing into Canada, Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Aquita Brown said Thursday.
Marilu Cabrera, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services, which receives asylum applications, said the agency does not comment on whether specific individuals have sought asylum. Canadian immigration authorities also declined to comment.
The competition, designed to encourage youths to pursue careers in math and science, attracted teams of teenagers from more than 150 nations. It had been in the national spotlight already, thanks to a team of girls from Afghanistan who were allowed to attend after President Trump intervened on their behalf. Twice, their visas had been rejected — an Afghan official said the Americans feared they wouldn't go home.
Competition organizers learned Tuesday night that the Burundi chaperone couldn't find his team. FIRST Global President Joe Sestak, a former congressman from Pennsylvania, made the initial call to the police, according to a statement.
"There were indications that the students' absence may have been self-initiated, including leaving all their keys in their mentor/chaperone's bag and the removal of students' clothes from their rooms," FIRST Global said in a subsequent statement.
The students had been staying in dorms at Trinity Washington University, and had been expected to return to Burundi together on Thursday.
Benjamin Manirakiza, first counselor at the Burundian embassy, told The Associated Press on Thursday that officials weren't aware of the team's presence in Washington until the chaperone alerted the embassy Wednesday. He said he had no comment on their disappearance.
According to police reports, the teens were traveling on U.S. visas good for one year. The reports say police tried to contact one missing teen's uncle, but got no response.
The competition's webpage on Team Burundi says team members were selected from schools in Bujumbura, the capital city. The team's slogan in Kirundi is "Ugushaka Nugushobora," which translates roughly to "where there is a will, there is a way."
In addition to Ingabire and Mwamikazi, the missing teens include Nice Munezero, 17; Richard Irakoze and Aristide Irambona, both 18; and Kevin Sabumukiza, 17.
Burundi has been plagued by deadly political violence since April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza's ultimately successful decision to seek a third term led to street protests. Critics called his move unconstitutional.
More than 500 people have been killed in Burundi, an East African nation of about 10 million people, according to the United Nations. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country.
In January, Human Rights Watch reported that members of a pro-government youth militia had "brutally killed, tortured, and severely beaten scores of people across the country in recent months." The group accused Burundi's government of being unwilling to restrain youth militia members.
Burundi's government often dismisses the allegations, saying they are based on false information supplied by the regime's opponents.