Sinister silence after Burundi coup

Army takeover has failed to quell fears of an ethnic bloodbath, David Orr writes from Bujumbura
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The Independent Online
Peace prevails on the streets of the Bujumbura in the wake of the military coup.

Despite the widespread deployment of heavily armed soldiers and the imposition of a dusk-to-dawn curfew, an air of calm reigns in the Burundian capital. The borders and airport of the central African state, closed since Thursday, are due to reopen today.

The city's inhabitants, almost exclusively members of the Tutsi minority, have welcomed the installation of a new Tutsi president by the mainly Tutsi army. The response of the majority Hutu community is more confused. Since a series of bloody "cleansing" operations by the military last year, Bujumbura has been all but emptied of Hutus. Many remaining Hutus have gone into hiding, fearful for their lives.

"What's happened here is very good", one young Tutsi said. "We welcome the new president. You see, everything is quiet and peaceful here."

But forebodings of doom have been filtering into the city from the remote hinterland. Hutu rebels, who have been mounting increasingly ferocious attacks on Tutsi settlements, have denounced the coup. They say they will now strangle Bujumbura. There have been reports of a number of guerrilla attacks around the tiny mountainous country.

The army putsch took place amid rising panic following the disappearance of the Hutu president and the collapse of the government, a beleaguered coalition of Hutu and Tutsi parties. There were widespread fears of a bloodbath after President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya went into hiding earlier in the week. The spectre of genocide such as that which engulfed neighbouring Rwanda two years ago loomed large.

President Ntibantunganya fled to the US ambassador's residence after being practically lynched by a mob of Tutsi protesters at the funeral of 350 Tutsis massacred by Hutu extremists last weekend.

He has been holed up in the Bujumbura villa since Tuesday evening, fearful for his life. Many Tutsis believe he has been implicated in massacres of Tutsis, which have become increasingly frequent in recent months.

Uprona, the largely Tutsi party which has shared power with the mainly Hutu Frodebu party since 1994, announced on Wednesday that it no longer had any confidence in President Ntibantunganya. It accused him of promoting genocide and of collaborating with Hutu rebels.

It rapidly became evident that the government, founded on a power-sharing agreement between the majority Frodebu and the minority Uprona parties, could not last. Though the Tutsi Prime Minister, Antoine Nduwayo, refused to stand down, it was clear that the end was fast approaching.

Hutu ministers followed the President into hiding, seeking the protection of Western diplomats in the capital. The sound of grenade explosions echoed around Bujumbura.

As confusion about Burundi's fate spread, troops moved on to the streets and inhabitants were ordered to remain indoors. All roads into the city were blocked, outside telephone lines were cut and the military surrounded the television and radio station.

The army announced its takeover on Thursday afternoon, naming the former president Pierre Buyoya as the interim ruler. Parliament and all political parties were suspended. Demonstrations and strikes were banned. Borders and the airport were closed and an existing curfew extended.

As the crisis deepens, the United Nations has issued renewed calls for the immediate deployment of a multinational peace-keeping force in Burundi. The Organisation of African Unity says it will not allow the coup to succeed.

Amid heavy security, the new president yesterday appeared before international and local media. Dressed in a short-sleeved tropical suit, the 46-year- old major was applauded by the largely Tutsi audience as he took his seat beneath a portrait of himself in military uniform.

"We have done this to avoid genocide", said Mr Buyoya. "We want to restore peace and protect the population".

Mr Buyoya, who introduced democracy to Burundi in 1993, declined to put a limit to the duration of martial law.

"No persons or groups will be allowed to sabotage our programme", he said. "In this regard we intend to be extremely strict."

He promised that a transitional government would shortly be formed from outside the traditional parties. The new leader expressed his readiness to talk to rebel groups if they lay down their arms and renounced genocide.

But in answer to a question from the Independent which was booed by Tutsis in the audience, he said he was opposed to any foreign intervention in the country's ethnic conflict.

"We ask for the collaboration of all Burundians and of the international community to help us restore peace", said Mr Buyoya. "But Burundi's problems will not be resolved by intervention. Even the idea of intervention produced an insurrection and the fall of whatever small amount of government that remained."

Mr Buyoya first became president in 1987, when he overthrew a fellow Tutsi, Jean-Baptiste Bagaza.

When Mr Buyoya said yesterday that this week's coup had been engineered to prevent "some adventurers" from seizing power, there was little doubt he was referring to Mr Bagaza, who remains a beacon for hardline Tutsis.

Mr Buyoya served as president until 1993, when he lost multi-party elections which he had called.

His successor, Melchior Ndadaye, the country's first freely elected Hutu president, was assassinated in October 1993. The coup by Tutsi troops was a failure but in the fighting which followed more than 50,000 Burundians perished.

During the intervening years, Mr Buyoya has been much consulted on affairs of state, not only by members of the just-deposed government but also by diplomats and visiting dignitaries. Most of his energies have been devoted to his Foundation for Unity, Peace and Democracy in Africa, an inter-ethnic think-tank which he founded in 1994.

Ironically, the foundation has been supported by USAID, the US government's foreign development agency.

With the ousted Mr Ntibantunganya still under the protection of its ambassador, the United States has repeated that it will not recognise the militarily- installed regime of Mr Buyoya.

Mr Buyoya, who is regarded as a moderate in an arena which has become increasingly extremist, is very popular among Tutsis. But, having been given power by the Tutsi-led army, he is unlikely to find favour in the majority Hutu community. In the eerily quiet aftermath of this week's political storm, the threat of ethnic bloodshed looms larger than ever in Burundi.