Rwanda’s Senate approved changing the constitution to extend presidential term limits that would allow Paul Kagame to run for at least a third mandate, a move criticized by the U.S.

The East African nation’s current charter caps the president at two terms of seven years each. Kagame has governed the country since 2000 after he led a rebel army that ended the 1994 genocide in which about 800,000 were killed. The next election is due in 2017. The coffee-producing nation has been one of the fastest-growing African economies, with expansion of 7 percent last year expected to rise to 7.5 percent in 2015 and 2016.

The question of whether to amend constitutional term limits can now be put to a public referendum. The opposition has opposed any extension.

"The United States notes with great concern the Rwandan Senate’s vote today to proceed with a constitutional referendum that would allow more terms for President Paul Kagame," Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday in Washington. "Leaders should respect term limits."

The U.S. expects Kagame to respect his previous vow to step down at the end of his term in 2017, he said.

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