— Coordinated attacks by gunmen struck Burundi’s capital before dawn on Friday, the most significant act of violence since a failed coup attempt in May, causing stores to shutter and jittery residents to bolt themselves indoors even as the government sought to assure the incredulous population that daily life was continuing as normal.
About 30 assailants were involved in the attacks, opening fire on at least three military installations in and around the capital, Bujumbura, and reportedly on another military camp farther away, the government said. Officials said more than a dozen attackers were killed by security forces, but it was not clear whether there were any civilian or government deaths.
The assaults raised alarm in Burundi, a central African nation
that has been pulsing with violence since President Pierre Nkurunziza won a controversial third term in office in July. Citizens took to social media to ask leaders if they knew that the “sky was falling,” as one Twitter user put it, and accuse the government of incompetence.
Firefights broke out between assailants and security officers in several neighborhoods, and barrages of gunfire could be heard rolling across the city into the afternoon. The streets were empty of all but police and military vehicles, and downtown Bujumbura came to a standstill, witnesses said.
Although sporadic acts of violence believed to be led by members of the opposition have increased in recent weeks, the government sought to play down any political dimension to Friday’s assault, referring to the assailants as criminals trying to steal from a weapons cache to break compatriots out of jail.
And despite the growing sense of a government losing control, with reports of continuing defections among the police force and military, the presidential office insisted in a Twitter post that no state of emergency was in effect.
“Some members of the armed gang are in total disarray,” one Burundi government spokesman, Karerwa Ndenzako, wrote on Twitter. He said he and other Burundian officials were meeting Friday evening, but only to discuss the 2016 budget, not any rumored state of emergency.
“Rumors are flying that Bujumbura downtown
is vacant because of this attack,” Willy Nyamitwe, another government spokesman, wrote on Twitter. “It’s business as usual, ppl at work, kids at school.”
But civilians in Bujumbura said differently. They said the capital was under lockdown and shops remained closed all day. Students at the University of Burundi who tried to attend end-of-year exams were turned away by security forces.
Echoing signs of alarm, three international airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and RwandAir, canceled flights into Burundi on Friday. “The reason we could not land is that there is no personnel,” a Kenya Airways official told Reuters. It was not clear if the airport had been closed.
The United Nations has yet to decide how to bolster the international response to the crisis, including whether to send peacekeepers to the country. After a meeting Friday evening, the Security Council, in a statement, called on all armed groups to lay down their weapons and on the government to resume political talks. The Council statement warned that it would consider additional measures against perpetrators of violence.
The Human Rights Council, acting on a request from the United States
and 42 other countries, agreed to hold a special session on Burundi in Geneva
next Thursday. Keith Harper, the United States ambassador to the council, wrote in a Twitter post that the United States pushed for the special session on Burundi to address the “deteriorating human rights situation.” The recent violence leading up to Friday’s assault has included assassination attempts, grenades thrown at government property and random killings. “Confrontation is escalating; it is more and more structured, and more and more people,” said Thierry Vircoulon, an analyst for the watchdog International Crisis Group. “We’re moving towards a guerrilla-type scenario.”
Analysts who suspect that the opposition is behind the campaign of violence say it is a way of pressuring the government to negotiate a power-sharing agreement. But Mr. Nkurunziza, who came to power in 2005 at the end of civil war in Burundi, has shown no sign of willingness to share power.
The Constitution limits presidents to two terms, but when Mr. Nkurunziza announced in April that he would seek a third term, he argued that his candidacy was legal because he was first elected by Parliament, not by voters. His move led to a failed coup attempt in May, boycotts by opposition parties and waves of protests and violence after the vote in July.
Since then, hundreds of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring Rwanda
for safety. In November, the son of a well-known Burundian human rights activist was found dead after being arrested during one of the protest rallies.