Fighting breaks out between rival Burundi army factions
Heavy fighting has broken out between the rival factions of the armed forces in Burundi following an announcement by the country’s army chief that an attempted coup against President Pierre Nkurunziza has failed.
According to military officials, Burundi’s divided army factions exchanged heavy machine gun and rocket fire in the early hours on Thursday around the state television and radio complex in the country’s capital, Bujumbura.
On Wednesday, former intelligence chief Major General Godefroid Niyombare, announced the overthrow of the central African nation’s leader, after the president’s arrival in neighboring Tanzania for talks with regional leaders.
President Nkurunziza’s whereabouts are currently unknown. He has faced strong opposition and the attempted coup over a decision to run for a third term in office.
The Republic of Burundi, a small country in Africa’s Great Lakes region, shares borders with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania. Eighty five percent of its population, which stands at 10,395,931, belongs to Hutu ethnic group, whose former leader, Pierre Nkurunziza, was elected as president on 26 August 2005.
The chief of staff of Burundi’s army, Major General Prime Niyongabo, announced on state radio that forces loyal to the president, who managed to stop the coup, are in control of the presidential office.
Army chief Niyongabo said, “The attempted coup by General Godefroid Niyombare has been stopped,” adding, “The national defense force calls on the mutineers to give themselves up.”
However, Burundi’s police commissioner Venon Ndabaneze, who is a spokesperson for the anti-Nkurunziza camp, denied the failure of the coup and insisted that the opponents were in control of several facilities, including Bujumbura’s international airport.
The attempted coup has provoked international concern. While UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made an urgent appeal for calm and restraint in Burundi, the UN Security Council is to hold an urgent meeting, called by France, on Thursday.
Following the coup’s announcement, hundreds of people reportedly took to the streets in the capital, shouting “Victory!”
Daily demonstrations, which erupted in late April against the president’s bid to run for a third term in upcoming elections in June, heated up on Wednesday, with troops surrounding the national radio station and a police officer opening fire at protesters in Bujumbura.
Before the announcement of the coup, clashes between protesters and police left two civilians and a police officer dead, and at least 66 wounded, according to the Burundian Red Cross.
More than 22 people have been killed and scores injured since late April, when the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy, which is the ruling party in Burundi and known by its French acronym CNDD-FDD, nominated Nkurunziza as its candidate for the June 26 presidential election.
Also above 50,000 Burundians have fled the violence to neighboring nations in recent weeks, with the UN preparing for thousands more refugees.
Burundi, a small nation in Africa’s Great Lakes region, emerged in 2005 from a brutal 12-year civil war. In October 1993, Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically-elected president of Burundi who came from the Hutu ethnic group, was assassinated after only 100 days in office. The assassination triggered deadly ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis, another ethnic group in Burundi.
Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the majority Hutu tribe, has been Burundi’s president for two legal five-year terms. His intention to seek a third term is viewed by the opponents as a clear violation of the constitution and the Arusha peace agreement, which marked an end to the civil war. The two documents limit the president’s stay in office to two five-year terms.
The incumbent president, however, has rejected claims that he is violating the constitution by seeking to remain in power, arguing that he can still run for president as his rise to power after Burundi’s 12-year civil war in 2005 did not come through direct votes.