The head of Burundi’s army said on Thursday that an attempted coup had failed and forces loyal to President Pierre Nkurunziza were in control, but bursts of gunfire in the capital through the day suggested the battle for power was not yet over.
Army Chief of Staff General Prime Niyongabo’s announcement came a day after another general said he had sacked Nkurunziza for seeking an unconstitutional third term in office, developments that have alarmed neighbouring governments.
Heavy fighting flared around the state broadcasting headquarters, forcing state radio to halt transmissions briefly. It resumed after the shooting died down to announce that it was still in the hands of forces loyal to the president.
The state broadcaster is seen as a strategic asset for both sides to reach the population.
It was difficult to determine who was now in control of the capital, with periods of relative calm broken by bouts of gunfire. But presidential loyalists said they controlled vital assets such as the radio, airport and presidential offices.
A Reuters witness saw one dead soldier lying near the Interior Ministry. Nearby troops said he was a coup supporter.
By Thursday evening, there was a semblance of calm in the capital, the epicentre for Burundi’s worst political crisis since an ethnically fuelled civil war ended in 2005. A few civilians were in the streets, as police and soldiers looked on.
“I condemn that group of coup plotters,” the president said in a radio broadcast. “I thank soldiers who are putting things in order, and I forgive any soldier who decides to surrender.”
Nkurunziza, who sparked more than two weeks of protests by saying he would seek another five years in office, was in Tanzania for an African leaders meeting on Wednesday when the attempt to topple him was announced.
There was no official confirmation of his whereabouts, but Tanzanian sources said he was at a secure location in Dar es Salaam. Presidential media adviser Willy Niyamitwe said he could not say where the president was for security reasons.
“The coup attempt failed, loyal forces are still controlling all strategic points,” army chief Niyongabo said in a statement on state radio before fighting erupted around the station.
ARMY FAULT LINES
In Burundi’s civil war that ended a decade ago, the army was commanded by minority Tutsis who fought against rebel groups of the majority Hutus, including one led by Nkurunziza.
The military has since been reformed to absorb rival factions, but fault lines in its ranks have remained, fuelling fears of a slide back into ethnic bloodletting that have caused deep concern in Burundi’s neighbours.
The United Nations says more than 70,000 Burundians have fled to neighbouring states, unsettling a region which has a history of ethnic fighting.
African nations condemned the takeover attempt.
“East African leaders are determined to find a lasting solution to Burundi’s crisis,” Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe said in Dar es Salaam. “Africa does not want the leadership of any country to be assumed by the barrel of a gun.”
The African Union criticised any attempt to seize “power through violence” and called for dialogue to resolve the crisis, the continental body’s Peace and Security Council said.
Opponents say the president’s third election bid violates the constitution and a peace deal that ended the civil war.
A constitutional court ruling, however, stated that the president could run, finding that his first term, when he was picked by parliament rather than by popular vote, did not count. Critics say the court is biased.
In one suburb, which had been a protest flashpoint, a group of young men who tried to walk to the centre of the city were blocked by police officers, a Reuters witness said. In another location, policemen were seen beating up a youth.
Two private radio stations and a television channel were attacked by unknown men in police uniforms, a Reuters witness said. The stations had carried Major General Godefroid Niyombare’s announcement on Wednesday sacking Nkurunziza.
Western donors, which provide vital aid to finance the budget and other institutions, have criticised Nkurunziza for running again. The United States, which trains and equips the army, called on Wednesday for all parties to end violence.
The European Union, Belgium and the Netherlands have all suspended some aid due to the violence, particularly donations linked to the elections, which include parliamentary polls scheduled for May 26 and the presidential vote on June 26.