Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza arrived back in the country Thursday, a day after a coup was declared while he was in Tanzania for regional talks, his office said.
“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.”
Nkurunziza was in neighbouring Tanzania for regional talks Wednesday when the coup was announced by former intelligence chief Godefroid Niyombare, in a culmination of weeks of street protests against the president’s bid to seek a third term.
But the outcome of the coup appeared uncertain Thursday as rival factions within the security forces clashed around the state television and radio complex.
Broadcasts to the nation were briefly interrupted but resumed after anti-coup forces repelled a major attack by rival troops.
In the afternoon, station director Jerome Nzokirantevye said it was “loyalist soldiers who are in control.”
The bodies of three soldiers were seen by an AFP journalist lying in the street.
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.
UN envoy Said Djinnit briefed the council, saying it was “still unclear” whether the coup attempt would succeed, a diplomat told AFP.
AFP reporters in the Burundian capital said the crackle of automatic weapons fire and the thump of explosions could be heard throughout the night Wednesday, and intensified around dawn on Thursday.
For much of the day 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.
Both sides claimed to control the streets.
But Burundi’s armed forces chief, a supporter of the president, went on 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 comes after weeks of deadly civil unrest sparked by the president’s controversial bid to stand for re-election.
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 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.
– International alarm –
Nkurunziza has not been seen since the coup was declared. He was said to have tried to leave Dar-Es-Salaam immediately on Wednesday to head back to Burundi, but appeared to have been blocked by his opponents who had seized the airport and ordered the borders to be shut.
An AFP correspondent said 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.
US State Department spokesman Rathke said the Burundian leader had remained overnight in Tanzania but said Washington did not know his precise whereabouts.
The African Union Thursday condemned the violence, calling all “parties to peacefully resolve the crisis.”
Those calls were echoed by Washington and the European Union which warned it was “essential the situation does not spin out of control”.
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 decide 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.