BUJUMBURA, Burundi – Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza made his first appearance since an attempted coup, warning of a threat from Islamist Shebab militants and sending a clear message he is in charge of the central African nation.
Dressed in a blue blazer and polo shirt, the president smiled and shook hands with reporters at the presidency in Bujumbura’s city centre. He gave only a brief statement, without even mentioning the failed plot to overthrow him.
A group of top generals on Wednesday launched a bid to oust Nkurunziza while he was on a visit to neighbouring Tanzania after weeks of deadly street protests over his controversial bid to stand for a third term in office.
Nkurunziza spoke about reported threats from Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab militants, who have threatened attacks against Burundi and other states that contribute troops to the African Union force in Somalia.
“We have taken measures against Al-Shebab. We take this threat seriously,” the president said.
Nkurunziza has been accused of launching a campaign of repression against opponents and trying to silence independent media since coup leaders admitted defeat on Friday after fierce fighting with loyalist troops.
Seventeen alleged plotters appeared in court on Saturday, including a former defence minister and two top police commissioners, to face accusations of “attempting to overthrow the state”.
Willy Nyamitwe, a close aide to the president, said Burundi’s election commission “could decide to delay” parliamentary and presidential votes due to the crisis, but gave no indication the president had changed his mind about standing for re-election.
“We will put everything in place for the laws and constitution to be respected and for elections to be held,” he said, insisting any delay would not be used as a pretext for Nkurunziza to prolong his rule.
Parliamentary elections are due to take place on May 26, and presidential polls on June 26. Nyamitwe suggested they could be delayed by “two or three days, by a week”.
The election commission said a decision on the delay would be announced in the coming days.
– Born-again president –
Opposition and rights groups insist that Nkurunziza’s bid for a third five-year term is against the constitution and the terms of the peace deal that brought an end to the country’s civil war in 2006.
The president has also been accused of intimidating opponents and failing to lift the fortunes of small landlocked Burundi, one of the poorest countries on the planet.
Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader and born-again Christian who believes he has divine backing to lead the country, argues his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people.
There are fears Burundi could slide into a cycle of vicious reprisals against anyone linked to the coup, after witnesses and security sources said troops loyal to the president have been hunting down rival soldiers, even the wounded in hospital.
Aide Nyamitwe dismissed concerns the lives of alleged plotters could be in danger. “No one is going to be killed,” aide Nyamitwe told reporters.
“Some of them surrendered and others have been caught by security forces. The others who are still on the run are being sought by the police and the army to be brought to justice. All of them are going to be judged.”
Weeks of protests have already left at least 20 people dead, many of them shot by police during the demonstrations. It remains unclear how many were killed during the coup attempt.
– Protests due Monday –
Reflecting the continued tensions, the United States said Sunday it had evacuated 20 Americans, along with Canadians and other foreign citizens from Kigali, the day after European aid groups pulled out their foreign staff.
Bujumbura was calm on Sunday, although civil society and opposition activists have vowed to resume street protests on Monday.
“There is a truce so we can bury our dead,” said Pacifique Nininahazwe, one of the leaders of the campaign to stop the president from standing again. “The protests will start again on Monday morning.”
Officials say chief coup plotter Godefroid Niyombare, a former intelligence chief, was still on the run — although he had said Friday that he planned to hand himself in.
Rights activist Innocent Muhozi also said journalists were being subjected to threats of arrest and even death, and that the head of the prominent independent radio station RPA had been forced to flee the country.
Burundi’s main independent radio stations were attacked and put off the air by loyalist troops during the coup attempt. The president’s aide, however, condemned the attacks.
More than 100,000 Burundians have fled the violence to neighbouring nations, the United Nations said Friday.