BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) — Burundi's army was deployed on Monday for the first time to quell street protests, putting the military into a precarious position amid persistent demonstrations against the president's bid for a third term.
Confronting hundreds of demonstrators, two groups of soldiers almost opened fire on each other as the result of a dispute on whether to use lethal force against the protesters, sharply illustrating the military's difficult position.
In an apparent effort to assert greater control over the military, President Pierre Nkurunziza fired his defense minister, Pontien Gaciyubenge, who earlier this month had said the army would play a neutral role in the street protests and respect the Constitution, comments seen as critical of the president. Nkurunziza also replaced International Affairs Minister Laurent Kavakure and Trade Minister Marie Nizigiyimana, said presidential spokesman Gervais Abayeho.
The protests began more than three weeks ago after the ruling party named Nkurunziza as its candidate in June elections. Police tried to crush the demonstrations at the cost of at least 15 lives.
Burundi's situation grew even more volatile last week when a general announced a coup, which collapsed within two days when loyalist troops overwhelmed the rebel faction. Since Nkurunziza returned to the presidential palace over the weekend, the demonstrations have continued and the army appears to have inherited the role of putting down the street protests.
In Bujumbura's Musaga neighborhood, armed soldiers on Monday faced off with hundreds of angry protesters who called for Nkurunziza to reverse his decision to seek another term in office, which many say is unconstitutional.
An Associated Press reporter in Musaga, where protesters put up barricades of burning tires, saw two soldiers fire into a crowd of protesters, who had repeatedly shouted, "Shoot us." No casualties were seen.
"The military is shooting at us, you have seen for yourselves," said protester Alfred Nsengumukiza. "They came here pushing and shoving us and also doing the same to journalists, then they opened fire."
The soldiers who fired the shots were then ordered to leave the front line, sparking a rift between troops who opposed shooting at protesters and those who supported such action. Amid the standoff, the group opposed to firing at protesters cocked their guns and threatened to shoot their colleagues if they fired into the crowd.
No police were seen in the volatile areas of Musaga and Cibitoke, a sign that the army, which previously had acted as a buffer between angry protesters and the police, has now taken over operations against demonstrators. The soldiers are armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Many of the demonstrators in Citiboke said their protests should not be linked to the coup calling the coup plotters "opportunists."
"We just want Nkurunziza to respect the constitution and leave office. In the years he has been in power he has done nothing for us," said Bertland Nkurunziza.
Seventeen security officials, including five generals, accused in the attempted coup were charged Saturday with attempting to destabilize public institutions, said lawyers of some of the suspects. Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare, the former intelligence chief who announced the coup on Wednesday, remains at large.
Nkurunziza, who was in Tanzania for a summit to discuss his nation's troubles when the coup attempt was announced, made his first public appearance in Bujumbura on Sunday.
The U.S. government has raised concern over reports of retaliatory attacks in the aftermath of the attempted coup. It has urged Nkurunziza to condemn and stop the alleged use of violence by the police and the ruling party's youth militias against those who participate in street protests.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke cited cases of retaliatory violence against coup plotters and supporters in Burundi. He said any individuals charged with involvement must be treated according to the law and their rights must be respected. And "peaceful protesters should not be equated with people who participated in an attempted seizure of power."
At least three people were wounded in an overnight attack in the outskirts of the capital which witnesses blamed on the ruling party's youth wing.
Jafeh Hakizimana, said he was hacked with machetes by a group from the ruling party's youth wing, known as the, Imbonerakure, who came to his village looking for opposition supporters. Hakizimana said his brother was among the attackers.
"He did not do anything to help me and went on to beat others," Hakizimana said.
Fearing political violence, more than 105,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries recently, according to the U.N.
Associated Press reporters Gerard Nzohabona contributed to this report, Andrew Njuguna and Jerome Delay contributed to this report.