Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza has returned home a day after an attempted coup, the presidential office announced late Thursday. Nkurunziza was in Tanzania when a former military chief announced his ouster. In a message posted on the presidential office Twitter account, Nkurunziza declared, “I am back in Burundi. I congratulate the army and the police for their patriotism. I congratulate above all the Burundian people for their patience.”
The presidential office however declined to provide details of his whereabouts. “President Pierre Nkurunziza is now in Burundi,” his senior communications advisor Willy Nyamitwe told AFP. “That’s all we can say for the now because of security reasons.”
The news of Nkurunziza’s return capped a day of heavy fighting in the capital of Bujumbura between forces loyal to the president and dissident troops supporting Gen. Godefroid Niyombare, a former intelligence chief who announced Nkurunziza’s ouster Wednesday on a private radio station.
Nkurunziza was in neighbouring Tanzania for a regional summit when Gen. Niyombare announced his ouster following the Burundian leader’s controversial bid to seek a third term in office.
Speaking to FRANCE 24 hours after his radio announcement, Gen. Niyombare said he had “no other option” but to intervene following weeks of protests, which killed at least 20 people.
Reacting to the news from Tanzania, Nkurunziza dismissed the declaration as “a joke” and announced the coup had failed.
Wednesday’s ouster declaration exposed rifts in the Burundian military with soldiers loyal to Nkurunziza clashing with dissident troops for control of key sites in Bujumbura.
At least three soldiers were killed in the fighting.
Heavy fighting flared around the state broadcasting headquarters Thursday, forcing state radio to halt transmissions briefly. It resumed after the shooting died down to announce that it was still in the hands of forces loyal to the president.
Reporting from Bujumbura earlier Thursday as fighting raged, FRANCE 24’s Duncan Woodside said, “It’s clear both sides right now are in no mood for negotiations.”
The state broadcaster is seen as a strategic asset for both sides to reach the population.
Two private radio stations were attacked and shut down. This included the popular Radio Publique Africa, which had broadcasted Gen. Niyombare’s coup statement Wednesday. The attacks were widely believed to have been conducted by Nkurunziza’s supporters.
Coup declaration sparks international alarm
By Thursday evening, there was a semblance of calm in the capital, the epicentre for Burundi’s worst political crisis since an ethnically fuelled civil war ended in 2005. A few civilians were in the streets, as police and soldiers looked on.
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.
The coup announcement triggered international criticism and the United States insisted Nkurunziza remained the legitimate president.
“There are competing claims to authority, but we recognise President Nkurunziza as the legitimate president,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters.
The UN Security Council, in emergency talks on the crisis on Thursday, condemned the coup attempt and called for a swift return to the rule of law in the impoverished country.
Tens of thousands flee unrest
The attempted coup follows weeks of deadly civil unrest sparked by the president’s controversial re-election bid.
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 a born-again Christian, also believes he ascended to the presidency with divine backing.
More than 25 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, but said he had 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.- (FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)