By Esdras Ndikumana
Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) – A top Burundian general launched a coup attempt against President Pierre Nkurunziza on Wednesday, bringing to a head weeks of violent protests against the president’s bid to stand for a third term.
General Godefroid Niyombare, a powerful former intelligence chief who was sacked earlier in the year, announced via a private radio station that the president had been overthrown hours after he left for neighbouring Tanzania for talks with regional leaders.
The presidency, however, said in a brief message on Twitter that the coup had “failed”.
Pro-Nkurunziza troops were still in control of key institutions including the presidential palace and state broadcaster, witnesses said, and fired warning shots to stop demonstrators from marching on the state television and radio building.
“President Pierre Nkurunziza is removed from office, the government is dissolved,” General Niyombare said in the dramatic broadcast on the Insaganiro radio station.
“All people are asked to respect the lives and property of others.”
Hundreds of civilians ran through the streets of the capital, cheering “victory” and running with Burundi’s flag, an AFP photographer said.
The general said he was committed to the democratic process and would work with others towards holding elections in the impoverished, landlocked central African nation.
Over 20 people have been killed and scores wounded since late April, when Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party nominated Nkurunziza to stand for re-election in June 26 polls.
The clashes between security forces and demonstrators have raised fears of a return to widespread violence in Burundi, which is still recovering from a brutal 13-year civil war that ended in 2006 and which left hundreds of thousands of people dead.
Niyombare said he would form a “committee for the restoration of national harmony,” a temporary body whose “mission, among others, is the restoration of national unity… and the resumption of the electoral process in a peaceful and fair environment.”
Niyombare is a highly respected figure who was sacked from his position as chief of intelligence in February after he opposed Nkurunziza’s attempt to stay in office.
– Orders to guard state TV –
Opposition and rights groups insist that it is unconstitutional for Nkurunziza, who has been in office since 2005, to run for more than two terms. But he argues that his first presidential term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people.
Asked to rule on the issue, Burundi’s constitutional court found in his favour but not before one of the judges fled the country claiming its members were subject to death threats.
More than 50,000 Burundians have also fled into neighbouring nations in recent weeks, with the UN preparing for thousands more to come amid widespread reports of ruling party militia intimidating opponents.
There were more demonstrations on Wednesday, with hundreds of civilians marching towards state radio and television, while the influential African Public Radio (RPA) — which has been shut down at the start of the protests — was back on air.
“Don’t shoot at civilians. Shoot in the air. Shoot at military targets, not civilians. We have to protect the state TV and radio,” an army colonel was heard ordering soldiers protecting the facility.
Nkurunziza left Burundi earlier Wednesday for Dar-es-Salaam in neighbouring Tanzania, where he was to meet with leaders of the five-nation East African Community (EAC) — made up of Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda as well as Burundi.
The president was scheduled to join talks on ending the crisis in his country, but by late afternoon his whereabouts were unclear.
A brief statement on Twitter from the presidency said: “The situation is under control, there is no coup in Burundi.”
The African Union, European Union and United States have condemned the third-term bid by Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority who identifies himself as a born-again Christian and football fanatic.
Despite coming intense international pressure, Nkurunziza has repeatedly rejected international calls to end his bid for a third term.
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