Soldiers killed in Burundi 'coup' as president whereabouts remain unknown

Street battles between rival army units killed at least five soldiers in Burundi on Thursday as the whereabouts of the president remained unknown after an attempted coup. 

Gunfire echoed over the capital, Bujumbura, as soldiers backing President Pierre Nkurunziza fought those supporting the leader of the putsch, General Godefroid Nyombare.

• Burundi military coup attempt: in pictures

But there was no sign of Mr Nkurunziza himself. The president's downfall was announced on Wednesday as he attended a regional summit in neighbouring Tanzania. Since then, rumours have swirled about his location, but there is no hard evidence that he has returned to Burundi.

Members of Burundi's army hold back protestors (AFP)

What is clear is that the army has fractured into supporters and opponents of Mr Nkurunziza, triggering a series of battles for control of strategic points in the capital.

"Since around 7am, there has been sporadic gunfire throughout the day," said Georgios Georgantas, from the International Committee of the Red Cross. "The celebratory mood from yesterday has become a very tense one."


• Burundi shares ethnic balance that led to Rwanda genocide - but this conflict is different

Fighting has taken place around private radio stations – several of which were taken off air – and the headquarters of the national broadcasting service.

Soldiers backing the president were reported to be in control of the airport, marking a change from the situation on Wednesday night, but Mr Nkurunziza did not appear to have flown back to the city.

A detained protester cries as a protest against President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to run for a third term turns into an attempted military coup d'etat in Bujumbura, Burundi (REUTERS)

Radio Publique Africaine, a popular radio station, fell silent on Thursday, along with the two private radio stations which broadcast the message from Gen Nyombare proclaiming the overthrow of the government.

The national radio and television station, RTNB, appeared to be guarded by loyalist troops, but surrounded by soldiers supporting the coup leaders. This building came under attack at least once, but state radio was still on air on Thursday night.

• Burundi coup: Explosions and gunfire rock capital as president's return is blocked

"It's extremely hard to know who is in control of the military," added Mr Georgantas, speaking to the Telegraph by telephone from Bujumbura. "People have witnessed groups of men in military uniform fighting each other. We can only hope that a political solution can be found quickly: we are very concerned about the humanitarian situation."

Mr Georgantas added: "We just hope the situation becomes clearer so we can do our work under better conditions because at the moment things are quite dangerous."

A civilian carries a Christian cross as a sign of impartiality as he and others walk down a major road in the capital Bujumbura, Burundi
A civilian carries a Christian cross as a sign of impartiality as he and others walk down a major road in the capital Bujumbura, Burundi (AP)

The crisis was triggered by Mr Nkurunziza's bid to remove term limits to the constitution to allow him to stay in power. Gen Nyombare, the coup leader, was sacked as intelligence chief in February for opposing this move.

• Burundi coup: General announces overthrow of President Nkurunziza

Burundi shares the same ethnic balance that led to genocide in neighbouring Rwanda 21 years ago. Some 85 per cent of the country's 10 million people are from the Hutu ethnic group, while almost all of the remaining 15 per cent are Tutsi.

The president and the coup leader are both Hutus and former allies in the ruling CNDD-FDD party. So far, the unrest does not appear to have become an ethnic conflict pitting Tutsi against Hutu. Instead, it appears to be a power struggle between the two rivals in the same movement.

Protesters who are against President Pierre Nkurunziza prepare a petrol bomb in Bujumbura,
Protesters who are against President Pierre Nkurunziza prepare a petrol bomb in Bujumbura (REUTERS)

However, Burundi suffered more than a decade of ethnic civil war, which ended in 2005 after claiming 300,000 lives. Already, about 50,000 refugees have fled to Rwanda, apparently fearing a repetition of that bloodshed.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy president of South Africa – which played a key role in negotiating an end to Burundi's civil war – said he was "deeply concerned" by recent events, adding: "We cannot stand by to see violence and political strife tearing Burundi apart – that should not be allowed. We will make sure that we work to stop the violence that is unfolding there."



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