A top Burundian general launched a coup attempt against President Pierre Nkurunziza on Wednesday, capping weeks of increasingly violent protests against the leader\’s controversial bid for a third term.
General Godefroid Niyombare, a 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.
He also ordered the closure of Bujumbura airport and the landlocked central African nation\’s borders, declaring that he had the support of "many" high-ranking army and police officials.
Hundreds of people celebrated in the streets after the announcement, waving branches, dancing and sounding car horns in approval as soldiers marched through the capital. A nearby army tank was quickly surrounded by a crowd of smiling protesters.
The outcome of the coup was uncertain, however, with the presidency dismissing what it said was an "imaginary coup" and vowing the perpetrators would be brought to justice.
Pro-Nkurunziza troops appeared to still be in control of key institutions, including the presidential palace and state broadcaster, an AFP correspondent and witnesses said. Troops fired warning shots to stop demonstrators from marching on the television and radio building.
The Tanzanian government said President Nkurunziza was flying back home, although his exact whereabouts late on Wednesday night were unclear — amid speculation he may have travelled to a third country elsewhere in the region.
Ugandan government officials contacted by AFP refused to confirm or deny speculation that Nkurunziza may have flown to Entebbe.
The United Nations made an urgent appeal for calm, while the White House called on Burundians to "lay down arms, end the violence and show restraint".
In his message announcing the coup, General Niyombare called for a halt to violence and signalled he did not want to take power himself.
"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," said the general, vowing he was committed to the democratic process and would form a "committee for the restoration of national harmony" and work for "the resumption of the electoral process in a peaceful and fair environment."
Niyombare is a highly respected figure who was sacked from his intelligence post in February after he opposed Nkurunziza\’s attempt to prolong his 10-year rule.
His announcement prompted hundreds of civilians to run through the streets of the impoverished country\’s lakeside capital, cheering "victory" and waving the national flag.
Over 20 people have been killed and scores wounded since late April, when Burundi\’s ruling CNDD-FDD party — which has been accused of intimidating the opposition and arming its own militia — 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. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the conflict.
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. 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.
The African Union, European Union and United States have condemned the third-term bid by Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority and born-again Christian, who believes he ascended to the presidency with divine backing.
Despite coming under intense international pressure, Nkurunziza has repeatedly rejected calls to abandon his re-election ambitions.
More than 50,000 Burundians have fled the violence to neighbouring nations in recent weeks, with the UN preparing for thousands more refugees.
Nkurunziza left Burundi earlier Wednesday for Dar-es-Salaam in neighbouring Tanzania, where he had been scheduled to meet with leaders of the five-nation East African Community (EAC) — made up of Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda as well as Burundi.
EAC leaders later issued a statement condemning the attempted coup and calling for a "return to the constitutional order". The statement also urged a postponement of the elections.
Nkurunziza did not take part in the talks. Later Wednesday, the Tanzanian presidency said he was flying home.
Shortly afterwards, General Niyombare ordered the closure of the capital\’s airport and the country\’s borders, and an AFP correspondent confirmed the airport had been shut and that it appeared to be held by pro-coup forces.
"I order the closure of the airport and border, and I ask every citizen and law enforcement down to the airport to protect it," General Godefroid Niyombare said in a radio broadcast.
There was a tense standoff outside the state broadcaster.
"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.
However there were no reports of any clashes between rival army factions, and one senior source told AFP that talks were taking place between the rival factions within the security forces.
Meanwhile, the highly respected independent African Public Radio — which was shut down at the start of the protests — was also back on air.