Burundi has the same mix of majority Hutus and minority Tutsis as neighbouring Rwanda which was consumed by genocide and war two years ago.
"It would appear that a coup d'etat is unfolding here," said one high- ranking Western official who declined to be identified. "The Convention of Government has been dissolved and there is in fact no government in Burundi."
In a dramatic development, it was revealed yesterday that President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya had taken refuge in the residence of the United States ambassador in Bujumbura. He fled there the night before last in fear of his life. The Hutu President was almost lynched on Tuesday by an angry Tutsi mob at the funeral of 350 Tutsis massacred by Hutu extremists in the central region last weekend.
It is feared that extremist elements in the largely Tutsi military will attempt to take power by force. The army contains influential officers who were involved in a coup attempt involving the assassination of the first elected Hutu president in 1993. More than 50,000 members of both ethnic communities died in the fighting which followed.
The military has been engaged in an increasingly desperate effort to suppress an insurgency by Hutu rebels who have mounted a series of brutal attacks on Tutsi settlements in recent weeks.
The massacre at Bugendena in central Burundi last weekend, in which 350 Tutsis were butchered, marked a horrific escalation of the conflict. Hundreds of people are being killed every month.
"The President is here with his wife," confirmed an embassy spokesperson at the ambassador's residence. "It's intended to be a temporary situation".
The fall of the government was brought about by the announcement of the largely Tutsi Uprona party that it had withdrawn from the National Convention of Government, whereby it shares power with the largely Hutu Frodebu party. Uprona has called for the resignation of the Hutu President.
"The President's safety is being secured by the United States," Mr Ntibantunganya's chief of staff told the Independent yesterday. "The President wants to ensure he's not going to die just like that. If such a tragedy were to happen, it would be very difficult to control the situation."
The presidential aide, Mames Bansubiyeko, conceded it was now uncertain whether the President could stay in office. But he added that his departure could lead to chaos.
"He doesn't want to leave" said Mr Bansubiyeko. "As long as he remains alive he'll do as much as he can to calm the situation. However there is a real danger of a coup. The President is in contact with the Minister of Defence to see how this crisis can be solved. A coup would change matters radically."
The President has consistently told Western diplomats that he wants to hold on to office if at all possible. He fears his resignation or overthrow could lead to increased unrest.
The capital was last night calm and there was no evidence on the streets of a military take-over, despite the presence of Burundian paratroopers guarding the television station.
The fragile coalition of Frodebu and Uprona parties has looked more shaky than ever as the Tutsi Prime Minister, Antoine Nduwayo, has come under increasing pressure from Tutsi hardliners to stand down.
Both the Prime Minister and the President are seen as being weak and ineffectual. They have repeatedly shown themselves as incapable of resolving Burundi's political impasse and of bringing peace to the stricken nation.
Western diplomats in the capital have been expressing fears of a military coup before the end of the week. Other observers have been predicting the imminent resignation of the Prime Minister.
"The Prime Minister has not announced his resignation," Mr Nduwayo's chief of protocol told the Independent yesterday.
"Just because Uprona has rejected the Convention of Government, doesn't mean it is completely out of the government, the situation is very confused. Anything is now possible."
Under the National Convention of Government power-sharing agreement, Frodebu cannot exist in government on its own.
"It will be necessary to register another Convention of Government," said the President's chief of staff. "Or maybe someone else will take control."
With tension high in the capital, Burundians are anxiously waiting to see what elements might fill the power vacuum which has developed. The fear is that political hardliners of both main parties will move centre stage, pushing out those moderates who might be willing to form a new government.
"It's not known what the President will do now," said one Burundian observer. "We're in a country where no one knows what's happening. It's a catastrophe."Reuse content