Bujumbura, Burundi, May 14 – Rival factions of Burundi’s army fought intense battles Thursday for control of the capital, a day after a top general launched a coup to oust the central African nation’s President Pierre Nkurunziza.
The clashes were centered around the state television and radio complex, with broadcasts to the nation halted. The president himself was in neighbouring Tanzania when the coup was launched and remains in a secret location in Dar es Salaam, Tanzanian officials said.
AFP reporters said the crackle of automatic weapons fire and the thump of explosions could be heard throughout the night and intensified around dawn. After a brief lull and after state radio broadcast a message from Nkurunziza, a major attack was lanched by pro-coup troops.
“We are being attacked. It is very heavy. The transmitter has been cut. We cannot transmit,” a station director told AFP by telephone from inside the building.
The streets were largely deserted by civilians as sporadic clashes could be heard in other parts of the city, while plumes of smoke were seen on the city skyline.
“We control virtually the entire city. The soldiers who are being deployed are on our side,” coup spokesman Venon Ndabaneze told AFP. Similar claims, however, were made by troops loyal to the president, and it remained unclear which side had the upper hand.
Burundi’s armed forces chief, a supporter of the president, had also used national radio to declare that the coup, launched by former intelligence chief Godefroid Niyombare, had failed.
Supporters of the president also carried out attacks against independent media broadcasters in the capital, with the influential African Public Radio station ablaze after being hit by a rocket.
– Divine backing –
The attempted coup capped weeks of deadly civil unrest sparked by the president’s controversial bid to stand for a third term.
The crisis has raised fears of a return to widespread violence in the impoverished country, which is still recovering from a 13-year civil war that ended in 2006 and left hundreds of thousands dead.
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. The president, however, argues his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people.
Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority and born-again Christian, also believes he ascended to the presidency with divine backing.
More than 22 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.
It remains unclear, however, how many have died since the launch of the coup.
Resident Onasphore Ndayishimiye was one of the few who dared venture out on Thursday morning. On the way, he said, he narrowly avoided being shot.
“The police saw me and shot at me. I put my hands up and dived on the ground,” said Ndayishimiye who was unharmed, but shaken.
More than 50,000 Burundians have fled the violence to neighbouring nations in recent weeks, with the UN preparing for thousands more refugees.
– Stuck in Tanzania –
Nkurunziza was meanwhile stuck in neighbouring Tanzania, after his attempt to return home after the coup was announced was blocked by his opponents who seized the airport and ordered the borders to be shut.
“He is in Dar es Salaam, we cannot tell you where. We cannot bring him to the same hotel for security reasons,” a senior Tanzanian presidential security official told AFP, confirming Nkurunziza was still in the country.
An AFP correspondent confirmed the airport in the Burundian capital had been in the hands of pro-coup forces, although there were conflicting claims over who controlled it on Thursday.
The attempted coup has sparked international alarm, with Washington urging Burundians to “lay down arms, end the violence and show restraint”.
Those calls were echoed by the European Union which warned it was “essential the situation does not spin out of control”.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also made an urgent appeal for calm, while the Security Council said it would hold an emergency meeting on the situation on Thursday.
In his message announcing the coup, Niyombare signalled he did not want to take power himself, vowing to 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.
Asked to rule on the issue of a third term, Burundi’s constitutional court found in the president’s favour but not before one of the judges fled the country, claiming its members were subject to death threats.