A Burundian general said on Wednesday he had deposed President Pierre Nkurunziza for seeking an unconstitutional third term in office, and was working with civil society groups to form a transitional government.
But as cheering crowds streamed into the streets of the capital Bujumbura, sporadic gunfire was heard in the city centre, and it was not immediately clear how much support Major General Godefroid Niyombare had.
With President Pierre Nkurunziza abroad at an African summit in Tanzania to discuss Burundi’s crisis, the presidential office swiftly rubbished the declaration by Niyombare, who had been fired as Nkurunziza’s intelligence chief in February.
“We consider it as a joke, not as a military coup,” presidential aide Willy Niyamitwe told Reuters, while a statement on the presidency’s Facebook page said the attempted coup had been “foiled”.
Niyombare made his declaration to reporters at a barracks in Bujumbura after more than two weeks of street protests against Nkurunziza’s attempt to win a third term.
It was not immediately clear who was in control. The state broadcaster, often a primary target during state takeovers in Africa, was surrounded by troops. An employee inside told Reuters that soldiers were trying to enter while others were resisting.
But that did not deter crowds of people dancing and singing in the streets. Some sat on top of cars. A Reuters witness said there was little sign of the police, hated by protesters for breaking up demonstrations by force, and widely considered loyal to Nkurunziza’s party.
“Regarding President Nkurunziza’s arrogance and defiance of the international community, which advised him to respect the constitution and Arusha peace agreement, the committee for the establishment of the national concord decide: President Nkurunziza is dismissed, his government is dismissed too,” Niyombare said, surrounded by several other senior army and police officers, including a former defence minister.
WEEKS OF PROTESTS
More than 20 people have been killed since street protests erupted in the impoverished central African state more than two weeks ago, according to an unofficial count by activists.
Diplomats in New York said the United Nations Security Council would discuss Burundi during a monthly lunch with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday. When asked about the events in Burundi, Ban told reporters: “We’re checking.”
The demonstrators say Nkurunziza’s bid for another five years in office violates a two-term limit in the constitution and the Arusha peace deal, which ended an ethnically fuelled civil war in 2005 that killed 300,000 people.
A constitutional court ruled that the president could run again because his first term, when he was picked by lawmakers rather than elected by popular vote, did not count. Opponents said the court was biased.
Niyombare, also a former ambassador to Kenya, said he was working with civil society groups, religious leaders and politicians on forming a transitional government.
East African leaders and a top official from continental heavyweight South Africa were meeting in Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam to discuss the crisis, which has already spilled over into a region with a history of ethnic conflict.
The leaders who condemned the ‘attempted coup’ also recommended that the scheduled elections in Burundi be postponed because the conditions were not conducive for peaceful polls.
They, however, said that the elections should not be delayed beyond the mandate of the current government.
South Africa said it was monitoring the situation closely but that it was too early to determine whether the move amounted to a coup.
Western donors, including the United States and the European Union, have criticised Nkurunziza’s decision to stand again.
The European Union and Burundi’s former colonial ruler Belgium had said they were suspending some aid, particularly support for the elections, due to the violence. Belgium had no immediate comment on the statement from the general.
More than 50,000 people have fled to neighbouring states. The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said the crisis was heading towards a “worst case scenario” that could see 300,000 people fleeing, some to other parts of Burundi and others abroad.