Burundi president appears in capital, warns of Islamist threat

Burundi president appears in capital, warns of Islamist threat
Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza speaks during a news conference in Bujumbura, Burundi, May 17, 2015.

BUJUMBURA, Burundi - Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza on Sunday made his first public appearance in the capital Bujumbura since an attempted coup last week failed to oust him, warning of a threat posed by Islamist militants from Somalia.

The east African nation was plunged into crisis after Nkurunziza said he was seeking a third term of office.

Critics said the move would be unconstitutional, and there have been almost daily protests since Nkurunziza's announcement, stirring memories of an ethnically driven civil war that ended a decade ago.

At a news conference, Nkurunziza, who has not been seen in the capital for days, did not address the crisis in his country but said he was "very preoccupied" by the threat posed by the al Qaeda-linked militant group al Shabaab. "We take seriously the threat of al Shabaab," said Nkurunziza.

He did not elaborate, but Burundi contributes forces to an African Union peacekeeping mission battling al Shabaab in Somalia. In recent years, the group has attacked Kenya and Uganda, which also provide troops.

A spokesman for the Islamist group said Nkurunziza's remarks were "dumbfounding" and said the problems in Burundi were"clearly domestic."

"We think that this is an attempt by him to appease his people, who are standing in the streets protesting against his dictatorship, or to divert the world's attention from him while he possibly prepares his mass revenge," Sheikh Ali Mahamud Rage said in a statement to Reuters.

A leader of a group of Burundian civil society groups, Vital Nshimirimana, said demonstrations against Nkurunziza's third term bid, which had largely come to a halt in recent days, would resume on Monday.

"We ask the international community to follow closely the situation in Burundi in order to stop the harsh reprisal against protesters, civil society activists and opposition leaders,"Nshimirimana said in a statement.

OLD WOUNDS Until the coup attempt, protests had occurred almost daily in the outskirts of Bujumbura. Protesters hurled rocks while police fired tear gas, water cannon and were also seen firing guns at the protesters.

Diplomats say the longer unrest continues the more chance that a conflict, which up until now has been largely a struggle for power, reopens old wounds in a region with a history of ethnic killing.

The United States closed its embassy on Friday and told non-emergency personnel and the dependents of its staff to leave.

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