BUJUMBURA, Burundi — Burundi’s capital was quiet Wednesday night but it was not clear who was in charge after a tumultuous day in which thousands of people celebrated an attempted coup against President Pierre Nkurunziza.
The military is divided between those supporting Nkurunziza and those backing the coup, said a senior military official who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. The two sides of the military were holding negotiations Wednesday night to determine the way forward, he said.
The attempted coup took place while Nkurunziza was in neighboring Tanzania for a summit on his country’s troubles. An army general announced on a private radio station that the president had been relieved of his duties.
Police withdrew from the streets of Bujumbura, the capital, after the general’s coup statement and thousands of people celebrated the apparent coup. People thronged Bujumbura’s streets and applauded soldiers who rode by in tanks and trucks. Some of the troops smiled and one raised his rifle to acknowledge the cheering crowd.
But some officials remained loyal to Nkurunziza. His office said in the evening that the coup attempt was unsuccessful, posting a statement on the president’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.
“A group of soldiers mutinied this morning and made a fantasy declaration of a coup d’etat,” said the statement. “This attempted coup was foiled and these people … are sought by defense and security forces so they are brought to justice.”
It was not clear where Nkurunziza was on Wednesday night. After leaving the Tanzanian summit, Nkurunziza did not return to Bujumbura and landed at Uganda’s Entebbe airport, said a top Ugandan official who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. He could not say if Nkurunziza stayed in Uganda or if he returned to Tanzania.
Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term as president sparked street protests in the capital in which 15 people have been killed.
During almost three weeks of unrest, the military acted as a buffer between police and protesters who oppose Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term, saying it violates the Constitution and Arusha peace accords that ended a civil war here.
The demonstrators rejoiced after the announcement of the coup Wednesday by Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare broadcast by Bonesha FM radio.
“Given the necessity to preserve the country’s integrity … President Pierre Nkurunziza is dismissed from his functions,” Niyombare said. He announced the creation of a temporary ruling committee to re-establish stability which he will head.
Soon after, the police melted away and people thronged the streets in celebration.
In February, Nkurunziza fired Niyombare as the director of the national intelligence service, replacing him days later with Brig. Etienne Ntakirutimana.
Earlier Wednesday police fired tear gas and water cannons to repulse protesters trying to enter Bujumbura’s central business district. A group of women protesters managed to infiltrate the police cordon and entered the central business district. An Associated Press journalist was present when a police officer fired around five single shots at the protesters in Bujumbura. Whether there were casualties was unclear.
The White House on Wednesday called on all sides in Burundi to end the violence and expressed full support for the ongoing work by regional leaders to restore peace and unity in the country.
The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, had also traveled to Dar es Salaam to contribute to the emergency meeting, according to a statement from the U.S. State Department.
In addition to the 15 fatalities, more than 220 have been injured in the protests, according to Burundi’s Red Cross. More than 50,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries fearing violence ahead of the elections, according to the U.N. refugee agency. The protests started on April 26, a day after the ruling party nominated Nkurunziza to run for re-election.
Burundi’s Constitution states a president can be popularly elected to two five-year terms. Nkurunziza maintains he can run for a third term because parliament elected him for his first one, leaving him open to be popularly elected to two terms.
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