Burundi accused of media crackdown after failed coup

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Burundi's government was Saturday accused of launching a campaign of repression against independent media, the day after loyalist troops defeated an attempted coup against the central African nation's president.

Seventeen alleged coup plotters, including a former defence minister and two top police commissioners, also appeared before a state prosecutor to face accusations of "attempting to overthrow the state". Their lawyer alleged they had been severely beaten.

Rights activist Innocent Muhozi said journalists were being subjected to threats of arrest and even death, and that the head of the prominent independent radio station RPA had been forced to flee the country.

In a sign of ongoing tensions, European aid groups also evacuated their foreign staff, a diplomat said.

On Friday President Pierre Nkurunziza thanked loyalist forces for crushing the coup attempt and warned demonstrators to end weeks of protests against his controversial bid to seek a third consecutive term in office.

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.

Chief coup plotter Godefroid Niyombare, a general and former intelligence chief, was said to be on the run.

The capital itself was largely calm on Saturday, AFP correspondents said.

"They want to break the journalists' morale. There is harassment, phone calls, threats, blacklists. Some have gone into exile, others are in hiding," said Muhozi, head of the Burundian Press Observatory.

He said African Public Radio (RPA) boss Bob Rugurika had been threatened and had fled abroad. There was no immediate reaction from the authorities.

Burundi's main independent radio stations were attacked and put off the air by loyalist troops during the coup attempt, which began on Wednesday and ended on Friday morning after a failed attempt by the plotters to seize Burundi's state broadcaster.

Authorities said 12 rebel soldiers died in the fighting, although there was no independent confirmation of casualty figures.

General Niyombare had used an independent radio station to announce his bid to overthrow Nkurunziza, and independent media have been accused of stirring weeks of protests against the president that have left around 25 people dead.

Among the 17 alleged coup plotters who appeared before a prosecutor in the capital on Saturday were General Cyrille Ndayirukiye and top police commissioners Zenon Ndabaneze and Hermenegilde Nimenya.

"They were seriously beaten, in particular General Ndayirukiye," lawyer Anatole Miburo said, adding that the general had been forced to record a confession for broadcast on state media.

- President calls for end to protests -

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. He has also been accused of intimidating opponents and failing to lift the fortunes of the impoverished country.

The president, however, argues his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people. A former rebel leader from the Hutu majority, Nkurunziza is also a born-again Christian who believes he ascended to the presidency with divine backing.

In his speech broadcast by state media, in which he thanked loyal security forces, Nkurunziza called for an immediate end to what he called "uprisings" against his third term.

"It is obvious that the current upheavals are related to the group that wanted to overthrow government institutions," he said.

The government has banned the demonstrations since they began weeks ago, describing the protesters as "terrorists".

Some activists said protests would restart on Monday, although other residents said they were afraid for their lives if civil unrest on the streets kicked off again. The militia-like youth wing of Burundi's ruling CNDD-FDD party was particularly feared.

"We are all scared," said Ghislaine, a 28-year-old housewife. "They destroyed the radio station so we have no idea what is happening and we're afraid they'll come at night and kill us."

In the city centre, some residents were out shopping to replenish their basic supplies to last them through any more unrest.

"It's not the first time there's a crisis here," shrugged Alexandre, a 56-year-old bank worker. "People are used to stocking up."

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.

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