Burundi president warns protesters as coup attempt fails

Esdras Ndikumana
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People line the streets as they celebrate the return of the Burundian president after a failed coup attempt in the Kamenge quarter of Bujumbura, on May 15, 2015

People line the streets as they celebrate the return of the Burundian president after a failed coup attempt in the Kamenge quarter of Bujumbura, on May 15, 2015 (AFP Photo/Jennifer Huxta)

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza thanked loyalist forces Friday for crushing a coup attempt and warned demonstrators to end their protests, linking them to the mutineers who launched the putsch.

After two days of heavy battles, the attempt by high-ranking security and defence figures to seize power ended in failure as its leaders admitted defeat and were arrested or forced to go on the run.

In an official speech released by his office, Nkurunziza thanked "from my heart" the security forces for the "efficiency and speed that they demonstrated to stop the disturbing plan" to overthrow him.

But the United States warned Nkurunziza against his plans to run for a third term in office, saying it would "exacerbate" Burundi's instability.

The dramatic finale to the coup attempt ended 48 hours of uncertainty over who controlled the small, landlocked and impoverished nation, which has been gripped by a political crisis over Nkurunziza's controversial bid for a third consecutive term.

General Godefroid Niyombare, who launched the coup in the central African nation earlier in the week, told AFP by telephone that he wanted to give himself up, while other top generals were arrested.

"We have decided to surrender," Niyombare said, admitting his coup attempt had come to an end. "I hope they won't kill us."

But tensions remain, with anti-Nkurunziza demonstrators returning to the streets on Friday and police firing shots to disperse them.

The president demanded an immediate end to the rallies, warning that they were "related" to those who took part in the coup.

A senior police official said Niyombare was still on the run, but that three other pro-coup generals had been detained. The loyalist police official also insisted those in detention were still alive, and that the state intended to put them on trial.

The coup leaders' spokesman, Zenon Ndabaneze, was speaking to AFP confirming that the putschists had decided to surrender when loyalist troops arrested him, deputy coup leader Cyrille Ndayirukiye and another senior figure among the rebels.

"We decided to give ourselves up. We have laid down our arms. We have called the security ministry to tell them we no longer have any arms," Ndabaneze said, seconds before he was heard being arrested.

"There will be no foul play. We won't kill them, we want to keep them so they can be judged," the police official told AFP after the arrests.

- Homecoming for the president -

Nkurunziza -- who was abroad when the coup was declared -- meanwhile returned on Friday to the capital Bujumbura.

State radio said his motorcade was cheered by large crowds as it headed for the capital. All independent Burundian broadcasters, however, are off the air.

Nkurunziza was in neighbouring Tanzania for regional talks on Wednesday when the coup was launched, in a culmination of weeks of violent street protests over his bid to cling to power.

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.

Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority and a born-again Christian, believes he ascended to the presidency with divine backing.

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, and unrest could continue -- with civil society activists calling for a resumption of demonstrations.

Washington said it was deeply concerned about reports of "retaliatory violence" after the coup attempt.

- International concern -

The coup attempt had raised fears of a return to widespread violence in the country, which is still recovering from a 13-year civil war that ended in 2006 and left hundreds of thousands dead.

On Thursday, loyalist troops fought off two major attacks by rival soldiers in an intense battle for control over the strategically important state broadcaster.

The coup announcement drew international criticism, with the United Nations Security Council, in emergency talks on the crisis, called for an end to the violence and "the holding of credible elections".

More than 100,000 Burundians have fled the violence to neighbouring nations, the United Nations said Friday.

In his message announcing the coup, Niyombare signalled he did not want to take power himself, vowing instead to 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.