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Burundi army divided after coup attempt, president out of country

Update: May, 14/2015 - 14:23

BUJUMBURA, Burundi — Burundi's armed forces chief announced on Thursday that an attempted coup against President Pierre Nkurunziza had failed, although the claim was quickly denied by opponents of the central African nation's leader.

The was also uncertainty over the whereabouts Nkurunziza, whose attempt to return home from Tanzania after the coup was announced was blocked after his opponents seized the airport.

A top Burundian general, former intelligence chief Godefroid Niyombare, launched the coup on Wednesday, capping weeks of violent protests against the president's controversial bid for a third term.

The general has ordered the closure of Bujumbura airport and the landlocked nation's borders, and declared he had the support of "many" high-ranking army and police officials.

Hundreds of people took to the streets in celebration after the coup announcement, shouting "Victory!" and sounding car horns. Cheering crowds were also seen walking alongside marching soldiers and climbing aboard tanks in the lakeside capital.

But in an overnight broadcast on state radio, armed forces chief General Prime Niyongabo said the coup had been stopped and that pro-Nkurunziza forces controlled the presidential office and palace.

"The national defence force calls on the mutineers to give themselves up," he added on state radio, also under the control of forces loyal to the president – who have fired warning shots to keep back protesters.

However a spokesman for the anti-Nkurunziza camp, Burundi's police commissioner Venon Ndabaneze, said the claim was false and that his side was in control of facilities including Bujumbura's international airport.

"This message does not surprise us because the general has long been allied to the forces of evil and lies," he said.

The latest radio announcement and the denial signals that the outcome of the coup attempt remains uncertain, and that overnight negotiations within the armed forces – which appears sharply divided over the issue – may have failed.

The crisis has raised fears of a return to widespread violence in the impoverished country, which is still recovering from a brutal 13-year civil war that ended in 2006.

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the conflict, marked by massacres between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi communities.

Speaking late on Wednesday to France24, General Niyombare said there was still "some confusion" and that "things will become clear" on Thursday.

International alarm

Nkurunziza's precise whereabouts outside the country remained uncertain, amid speculation his plane had to turn back on Wednesday or he that he may have travelled to a third country elsewhere in the region.

An AFP correspondent confirmed the airport in the Burundian capital had been shut and appeared to be in the hands of pro-coup forces.

The attempted coup 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.

Clashes between protesters and police early on Wednesday, before the coup was announced, left two civilians and a police officer dead, according to the Burundian Red Cross. At least 66 people were injured, it added.

More than 50,000 Burundians have fled the violence to neighbouring nations in recent weeks, with the UN preparing for thousands more refugees. — AFP


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