By Patrick Nduwimana and Goran Tomasevic
BUJUMBURA (Reuters) - The head of Burundi's army said on Thursday that an attempted coup had failed and forces loyal to President Pierre Nkurunziza were in control but heavy gunfire in the capital suggested the battle for power was not yet over.
Army Chief of Staff General Prime Niyongabo's announcement came a day after another general said he had sacked Nkurunziza for seeking an unconstitutional third term in office, developments that have alarmed neighbouring governments.
Heavy gunfire was heard coming from the direction of the state broadcasting headquarters, a Reuters witness said. State radio and television both went off air. The state broadcaster is seen as a vital asset for both sides to reach the population.
It was difficult to determine who was now in control of the capital, with periods of relative calm broken by bouts of heavy gunfire. A Reuters witness saw one dead soldier lying near the Interior Ministry. Nearby troops said he was a coup supporter.
Shortly before transmission stopped, the president praised loyalists and offered amnesty to soldiers opposing him.
"I condemn that group of coup plotters," he said in a radio broadcast. "I thank soldiers who are putting things in order, and I forgive any soldier who decides to surrender."
Nkurunziza, who sparked more than two weeks of protests by saying he would seek another five years in office, was in Tanzania for an African leaders meeting on Wednesday when the attempt to topple him was announced.
There was no official confirmation of his whereabouts, but Tanzanian sources said he was at a secure location in Dar es Salaam.
"The coup attempt failed, loyal forces are still controlling all strategic points," army chief Niyongabo said in a statement also broadcast on state radio earlier in the day.
In Burundi's civil war that ended in 2005, the army was commanded by minority Tutsis who fought against rebel groups of the majority Hutus, including one led by Nkurunziza.
The military has since been reformed to absorb rival factions, but fault lines in its ranks have remained, fuelling fears of a slide back into ethnic bloodletting that have caused deep concern in Burundi's neighbours.
AFRICAN NATIONS CONDEMN COUP
Bujumbura had initially been relatively calm on Thursday morning, despite sporadic gunshots. Police were back on streets where protests against Nkurunziza flared in previous days.
Critics say the president's third election bid violates the constitution and a peace deal that ended Burundi's civil war.
A constitutional court ruling, however, stated that the president could run, finding that his first term, when he was picked by parliament rather than by popular vote, did not count. Critics say the court is biased.
In one suburb, which had been a protest flashpoint, a group of young men who tried to walk to the centre of the city were blocked by police officers, a Reuters witness said. In another location, policemen were seen beating up a youth.
Two private radio stations and a television channel were attacked by unknown men in police uniforms, a Reuters witness said. The stations had carried Major General Godefroid Niyombare's announcement on Wednesday sacking Nkurunziza.
African nations condemned the takeover attempt.
"East African leaders are determined to find a lasting solution to Burundi's crisis," Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe said in Dar es Salaam. "Africa does not want the leadership of any country to be assumed by the barrel of a gun."
Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, commission chairwoman of the African Union, called for "the return to constitutional order".
The United Nations said more than 70,000 Burundians had fled to neighbouring states in a region which has a history of ethnic fighting.
Western donors, which provide vital aid to finance the budget and other institutions, have criticised Nkurunziza for running again. The United States, which trains and equips the army, called on Wednesday for all parties to end violence.
(Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa; Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Giles Elgood)