Coup puts Burundi on edge of the abyss

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Burundi is staring into an abyss following the collapse of the government yesterday and the disappearance of its President, who is now in hiding. Many fear the small central African nation could be engulfed in a cataclysm of genocide and civil war similar to that which ravaged neighbouring Rwanda two years ago.

A military coup last night appeared imminent as darkness fell and the curfew began.

Burundi's crisis deepened at the weekend when 350 members of the Tutsi minority were massacred in the central region by extremist members of theHutu majority. Angry Tutsi crowds stoned the country's Hutu President when he arrived for the funeral of the victims at Bugendena on Tuesday.

Within hours of his return to the capital, Bujumbura, President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya had sought refuge in the residence of the US ambassador, Maurice Hughes. An embassy spokesperson said the President was "clearly in fear of his life".

The first news of political turmoil came yesterday when Uprona, the largely Tutsi party which shares power with the mostly Hutu Frodebu party, said it was pulling out of the government. Uprona's leader, Charles Mukasi, accused the President of representing extremist Hutu interests and of bringing about civil war. He called for Mr Ntibantunganya's immediate resignation.

The US embassy spokesperson invited media members to the embassy residence. "The President has been here since Tuesday evening," said the spokesperson. "He is here at the hospitality of the ambassador. It was the President's own request to come here. As far as we're concerned this is a temporary situation." But the President would not come out to meet the assembled press.

The embassy spokesperson said the US would not approve a coup. Last night, the UN Security Council said it was "gravely concerned at recent information on political developments in Burundi".

The Council president, Alain Dejammet, of France, said: "They strongly condemn any attempt to overthrow the present legitimate government by force". The international community has shied away from intervention in Burundi, in spite of repeated warnings that it was sliding into anarchy.