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Burundi presidency says leader has returned after 'failed' coup attempt

15 May 2015, 07:45

Bujumbura, Burundi-Burundian leader Pierre Nkurunziza has returned to the country, his office said Thursday, as a deputy coup leader said the attempt to overthrow the president had failed after fierce battles between rival army factions.

"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 top general Godefroid Niyombare, capping weeks of violent protests against the president's bid to seek a third term.

The president's return could not be independently verified however and his precise whereabouts remained unclear Thursday night.

But the announcement that he was back in the country was swiftly followed by deputy coup leader General Cyrille Ndayirukiye's admission that the putsch had been a failure.

"Personally, I recognise that our movement has failed," Ndayirukiye told AFP.

"We were faced with an overpowering military determination to support the system in power."

Earlier in the day, loyalist troops said they had fought off two major attacks by rival soldiers in an intense battle for control over the strategically important state radio office.

The bodies of three soldiers were seen by an AFP journalist lying in the street near the scene of the clashes, the first apparent sign of casualties in the coup saga.

By mid-afternoon, station director Jerome Nzokirantevye said it was "loyalist soldiers who are in control."

A senior police official confirmed the information and said late Thursday that the pro-coup troops were "in disarray" after their assault on the RTNB state television and radio complex in the capital was repelled.

"Some rebels have already surrendered. Others are fleeing," he said.

The fight for RTNB was seen as crucial to control the flow of information as Burundi's main private radio stations and the largest independent television channel were no longer broadcasting. The influential African Public Radio station was even set ablaze after being hit by a rocket.

Wednesday's coup announcement triggered international criticism, raising 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 United States insisted Thursday that 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, also condemned the coup attempt and called for a swift return to the rule of law in Burundi.

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 before subsiding again later.

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 at different times claimed to control the streets, adding to the confusion over the outcome of the coup.


The attempted putsch came 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.

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.

Coup general recently sacked

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 at one point been in the hands of pro-coup forces, although there were conflicting claims over who controlled it on Thursday.

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.

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