Gunmen launched coordinated pre-dawn assaults on three army bases in Burundi on Friday, sparking a confrontation that left at least a dozen attackers dead in the worst unrest since a failed coup in May.
Alarmed by the violence, the UN Security Council met Friday following a request from France, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon saying the attacks risked triggering “a further destabilization of the situation,” according to his spokesman.
US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said following the closed-door talks that the Council was ready “to consider additional measures” against powerbrokers in the country who continue to block a political solution to the crisis, a veiled threat at sanctions.
The Council said that sending UN peacekeepers to the violence-gripped nation remained an option and stressed the need for urgent political dialogue. Burundi’s army said 12 gunmen were killed and another 21 captured following a series of coordinated morning assaults on the Ngagara base and a military training college, both in the capital, Bujumbura, as well as on a base in Mujejuru, 40km away.
Army spokesman Colonel Gaspard Baratuza said five soldiers had also been wounded in the attacks, in which the gunmen had sought to “stock up on weapons and ammunition.”
However, a senior army source said the fighting had caused “losses on both sides,” without giving further details. The three attacks began simultaneously at 4am.
Heavy firing and the sounds of artillery could be heard for many hours afterwards, said witnesses at several different locations. Across the capital, streets were deserted as residents stayed home and the army and security forces imposed a lockdown, with witnesses reporting many arrests.
It was the worst outbreak of violence since a failed coup in May, sparked by Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office, which he later won in disputed elections in July.
Ban urged all sides, including the government, “to refrain from any further escalation of violence or retaliation,” his spokesman said, warning that anyone “responsible for ordering or committing human rights violations will be held individually accountable.”
Thomas Perriello, Washington’s special envoy for the Great Lakes Region, said he was “alarmed” by the violence and called for an “immediate ceasefire and calm.” And concern was also expressed by envoys from France, Belgium and the Netherlands, with the UN, aid agencies and several foreign embassies urging their employees to stay at home and lock their doors.
“This is a worrying escalation because it is genuine military, or paramilitary, operations taking place in the capital,” one European diplomat said.
Months of street protests have devolved into regular armed attacks with gunfire disrupting the nights and dead bodies appearing on city streets almost every day.
Attacks targeting the security forces have escalated, with rebels armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars attacking police convoys and targeting government installations.
Since May, at least 240 people have been killed and more than 200,000 have fled for neighboring countries, UN figures show.
Frightened residents said that Friday’s fighting was the worst in months.
“I am holed up in the corridor of my house with my wife and children,” said Eric, a resident of the Musaga neighborhood of Bujumbura, where the attacked military college is located. “Pray for us because we will die!”
As sporadic gunfire echoed around the city, a government spokesman claimed the attacks had failed.
Regional carriers Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and RwandAir all canceled flights to Bujumbura on Friday.
Burundi is still scarred by memories of its 1993-2006 civil war pitting rebels from the Hutu majority against an army dominated by minority Tutsis.
About 300,000 people were killed in the conflict, which began a year before a genocide of mainly Tutsi people in neighboring Rwanda.
Although the unrest and armed battles are political, the UN and others observers have raised fears that the country might yet split along ethnic lines as in the past.
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