Burundi army chief of staff pledge loyalty to embattled authorities

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Burundian youths walk in the street during a demonstration against the president's bid for a third term on May 1, 2015, in Bujumbura

Burundian youths walk in the street during a demonstration against the president's bid for a third term on May 1, 2015, in Bujumbura (AFP Photo/Simon Maina)

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - The chief of staff of Burundi's army pledged the military's loyalty to the country's authorities on Sunday after the defence minister had declared the army's neutrality following a week of violent political protests.

General Prime Niyongabo said the military "remains and will remain a republican and loyalist army that is respectful of the laws and rules of Burundi and of those who govern it."

A statement by Defence Minister General Pontien Gaciyubwenge on Saturday declaring the army's neutrality and calling for an end to attacks on citizens' rights appeared to flag up possible divisions in the army.

The small central African nation has been rocked by a week of demonstrations against a bid by President Pierre Nkurunziza to serve a third term in office.

The government linked a grenade attack that killed three people, including to police officers, in the early hours of Saturday to the opposition protests and branded the demonstrators "enemies of the state".

Since the protests started, the army has regularly come between the police and demonstrators to avoid further clashes and the protesters believe the soldiers are neutral.

Despite his pledge of loyalty, the chief of staff warned against trying to use the army for political ends.

General Niyongabo called on soldiers "to stay calm, united and not to give in to any political approaches".

At least 10 people have died and scores more have been hurt since the protests began last weekend. Nearly 600 people have also been arrested, according to police.

Journalists in Burundi gathered on Sunday to mark World Press Freedom Day in sombre mood -- radio stations have been shut down as part of the authorities' efforts to quash the protests.

"It's a sad day for the Burundian press because radio stations are closed, journalists are jailed," said Antoine Kabuhare, head of an independent media rights group.

President Nkurunziza has been in power since 2005. His supporters, however, say he is eligible to run again, since his first term in office followed his election by parliament -- not directly by the people as the constitution specifies.

The opposition protesters announced a two-day truce over the weekend but have threatened to return to the streets on Monday unless Nkurunziza backs down.