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Burundi arrests leader of failed coup

By Goran Tomasevic

BUJUMBURA (Reuters) - Burundian forces arrested the leader of a failed coup on Friday and President Pierre Nkurunziza returned to the capital, his spokesman said, but protesters pledged to go back to the streets, setting the stage for more clashes.

Major General Godefroid Niyombare was captured two days after announcing Nkurunziza had been toppled in the African nation, which is still recovering from an ethnically fuelled civil war that ended just a decade ago.

"He has been arrested. He didn't surrender," presidential spokesman Gervais Abayeho told Reuters, after earlier announcing that three other generals had also been detained.

Asked what would happen to the plotters who announced the coup when Nkurunziza was abroad, Abayeho said it was up to the justice system: "They will be held answerable."

Burundi was plunged into deep crisis after Nkurunziza announced he was running for another five-year term.

Opponents say this violates the constitution and a deal to end the civil war that pitted rebel groups of the majority Hutu population, including one led by Nkurunziza, against the army which was then commanded by minority Tutsis.

The army is now mixed and has absorbed rival factions, but the coup attempt exposed alarming divisions.

Diplomats say the longer unrest continues the more chance that a conflict, which up until now has been largely a struggle for power, reopens ethnic wounds.

The unrest worries a region with a history of ethnic killing, but there was little sign that tensions were easing.

Troops loyal to Nkurunziza had largely calmed the streets after frequent gunfire on Thursday.

But activists called for more rallies against the president, while some Bujumbura residents said police told them they would be fired upon at if they did demonstrate.

"Protests to reject the third term bid for Nkurunziza will continue," said Gordien Niyungeko, deputy head of Focode, one of the 300 civil society groups that backed protests. "Our movement had nothing to do with the attempted coup."

Until the coup attempt, protests had been almost daily. Protesters hurled rocks while police fired tear gas, water cannon and were even seen firing guns at the protesters.


More than 105,000 people have already fled to neighbouring states, including next door Rwanda, with the same ethnic mix as Burundi and which was torn apart by a genocide in 1994 that killed 800,000 mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Hundreds of people lined the streets carrying flags for the president's return to the capital from his rural home. His spokesman said he was back in the presidential palace on Friday after returning to Burundi on Thursday from Tanzania where he had been when the coup was declared.

A man with a gaping head wound lay dead in a street in Butarere, a Bujumbura district that has been a hotbed for protests. Residents said police had shot him and wounded two others. There was no immediate police comment.

A group of men in Bujumbura's Cibitoke suburb said they had been told by police that they would be treated as rebels and shot at if they demonstrated. "Now we are no longer looking for protesters, we are looking for rebels," police told them.

Even before the coup attempt, officials had called protests an "insurrection".

Fighting on Thursday had at times been fierce, particularly around the state radio station, a strategic asset for loyalist and supporters of the coup. An army chief said 12 rebels were killed in those clashes.

The constitution and a peace deal that ended the civil war both specify a two-term presidential limit. But Nkurunziza is seeking a third term anyway, relying on a court ruling that his first term does not count because he was appointed by parliament, not elected. His opponents and some donors have questioned the court's impartiality.

The heavy-handed response of the police to demonstrations in recent weeks has drawn stern rebukes from Western donors, who have urged the president not to run again. The United States, which provides training and equipment to the army, demanded a halt to "violent force" by police.

The U.S. embassy was closed on Friday, non-essential staff were leaving and a decision on when to reopen had yet to be made, an embassy spokeswoman said.

Several African leaders had criticised Nkurunziza's bid for re-election in the June 26 presidential vote. The African Union also condemned any attempt to seize "power through violence".

The European Union, Belgium and the Netherlands have all suspended some aid due to the unrest, particularly donations linked to the elections, which alongside the presidential polls also include a parliamentary race scheduled for May 26.

(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Nairobi; Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Peter Graff and Philippa Fletcher)