BUJUMBURA, BURUNDI —
Gunfire rang out across Burundi's capital Thursday, as rival army factions battled for control of the city a day after a top general launched a coup attempt while the president was out of the country.
Fighting, which began overnight and intensified by daybreak Thursday, was centered around the state radio and TV complex – a strategic asset for both sides to reach the population – with troops who support the coup trying to take it from soldiers loyal to President Pierre Nkurunziza.
VOA's Gabe Joselow, who is in Bujumbura, said he saw a dead soldier near the complex.
Gunfire died down after hours of fighting, and a spokesman for the pro-coup forces, Zeno Ndabaneze, told VOA's Central Africa Service that presidential loyalists remain in control of the broadcast center. He said coup supporters have withdrawn from the area.
State radio, which had gone off the air, returned after about 90 minutes, playing what listeners describe as unity and reconciliation songs. The station had been cut off soon after it broadcast a message from the president, who said he is still in power and that the army supports him.
The president's exact whereabouts are unclear; sources told VOA that he is at an undisclosed location in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he attended a regional meeting on Burundi's political situation Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the United States said on Thursday it continues to recognize Pierre Nkurunziza as the legitimate president of Burundi.
"There are competing claims to authority but we recognize President Nkurunziza as the legitimate president," State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters at a briefing in Washington.
It was difficult to determine who was now in control of the capital.
Pro-Nkurunziza soldiers are currently in control of the presidential palace, while the situation at Bujumbura's international airport was unclear.
A local resident, who asked not to be named, told VOA the situation is dangerous for civilians. “We tell them we go to work, but they shoot us directly without asking us anything without asking ‘Where are you going?’ They just shoot us.”
Another resident, Ngugusony Buyenzi, said he, too, was confronted by the police. “The police are guarding the area,” he said, “and anyone who tries to cross over are told to go back.”
By afternoon, the streets of the capital were deserted. Soldiers in uniform were out guarding some of the key traffic circles and intersections in the city as gunfire could be heard from different directions.
On a side street near the Interior Ministry, a soldier lay dead in the road. Soldiers told Reuters news agency that he was a soldier from the pro-coup forces.
VOA's Joselow said earlier Thursday he had heard consistent gunfire coming from the headquarters of the ruling CNDD-FDD political party, where police maintained a heavy presence.
"The situation is just extremely tense right now. There’s a lot of uncertainty about who’s in charge, about whether the army has remained united, or if factions are fighting against each other," Joselow said.
Former intelligence chief General Godefroid Niyombare used privately owned radio stations to announce the president's dismissal Wednesday. The general had been fired from his position as Burundi's intelligence chief in February. Earlier in his career, he also served as Burundi's ambassador to Kenya.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Burundi to exercise calm and restraint, noting the nation suffered "grievously" from Burundi's 13-year civil war that ended in 2006.
Members of the U.N. Security Council will hold emergency consultations on the crisis later Thursday, with a video briefing from a U.N. envoy in the region.
The five-nation East African Community, which held the summit Nkurunziza was attending, condemned the coup attempt.
The White House called for an immediate end to the violence and for all sides to lay down arms. Spokesman Josh Earnest also voiced support for the ongoing efforts of regional leaders to restore peace and unity in the country.
Burundi has been rocked by protests since April 26, when President Nkurunziza announced he would run for a controversial third term. Clashes between police and protesters have killed at least 14 people and injured more than 200.
Since mid-April, the pre-election violence has caused more than 70,000 Burundians to flee to neighboring states, according to the U.N. refugee agency. The election is scheduled for June 26.
Critics of Nkurunziza said a third term would be unconstitutional, while the president and his supporters insist it is legal because he was chosen by lawmakers, not a general election, for his first five-year term in 2005. Burundi's constitutional court has ruled in the president's favor.
The officer at the head of Wednesday's coup attempt, General Niyombare, is a respected figure who was fired from his position as Burundi's intelligence chief in February. Earlier in his career, he also served as Burundi's ambassador to Kenya.
The chair of the African Union condemned the coup attempt in Bujumbura and called for the return of constitutional order. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma also warned that further violence will likely lead to "further loss of lives, population displacement and destruction of property."
The AU, holding an emergency meeting Thursday to discuss the escalation of fighting in Bujumbura, said it would send human rights observers to Burundi. However, the group did not specify how many observers would be deployed or when.
In addition to the observers, Peace and Security Council Chairperson Ambassador Diallo Amina Djibo said they would also analyze the situation and try to help the civilian population.
The AU also had dispatched a high-level delegation of the "Panel of the Wise" to Burundi last weekend, in an attempt to find a peaceful solution to the country's political turmoil.
Marthe van der Wolf contributed to this report from Addis Ababa. Some material for this report came from AFP and Reuters.