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Armed Men Wage Attacks on Military in Burundi as the World Warns of Civil War Risk

Gunmen carried out attacks on military bases throughout Burundi and gunfire could still be heard in the capital as night fell. The clashes follow a week of violent incidents that have become almost routine in the country.

by Kayla Ruble
Dec 11 2015, 11:10pm

Photo by Jean Pierre Harerimana/Reuters

Gunfire could still be heard throughout the empty streets of Bujumbura on Friday night, more than 12 hours after armed men waged a series of early morning attacks on military bases throughout Burundi. The East African country has been embroiled in unrest and political violence since the spring when President Pierre Nkurunziza sought out a controversial and legally tenuous third term in office.

The violence broke out around 3am this morning local time, when two bases in the capital and two in other parts of the country fell under attack from an unidentified armed group. Gunshots and explosions could also be heard throughout the capital, which government forces quickly put on lockdown.

In areas where no active fighting took place, police were reportedly patrolling the streets and civilians stayed locked in their homes. A source, who asked not to be identified because of the unstable security situation, told Vice News a child had been shot in his neighborhood, while other reports emerged on social media about dead bodies in the streets.

International medical organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which runs a 43-operson trauma center in the capital and has previously treated dozens of injuries as a result of the political violence, said its staff had restricted their movement as of 5:40am Friday morning. At the time the center had not received any patients, but the local office said in an operational note to headquarters that this was because ambulances were not running in the capital and the road to the facility was blocked off.

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"As soon as the security allows it, we will enforce our team in the trauma center and launch a mass casualty plan when needed," the note said. MSF was unable to provide further updates on the situation.

Meanwhile, two major airliners cancelled flights into the country on Friday, reportedly because there was no one at the airport to handle the arrivals. Kenya Airways and RwandAir both cut flights, with Kenya Airways spokesperson Wanjiku Mugo telling Reuters there were no personnel at the airport for the landing.

Presidential media and communications advisor Willy Nyamitwe took to Twitter to deny the airport was closed, he also denied a state of emergency had been put in place in the country — despite media reports and social media posts indicating the contrary. He also reported on the social media outlet that firearms had been seized and many assailants either killed or arrested.

Related: The New 'Extraordinary Threat' to US National Security Is A Landlocked Country in Africa

Speaking on national radio on Friday afternoon, army spokesman Colonel Gaspard Baratuza confirmed 12 armed men were dead and 20 arrested in Bujumbura. He said that in another attack outside of the capital that the aim of the attackers had been to seize arms that were to be used to free prisoners.

Friday's clashes follow a week of violent incidents that have become almost routine in the country. On Wednesday, witnesses reported that police entered people's homes and forced them onto the streets before shooting them. This followed warnings Tuesday of a potential for the situation to escalate coming from the United Nations special adviser for the prevention of genocide Adama Dieng.

"There is a serious risk that if we do not stop the ongoing violence, this may end with a civil war, and following such civil war, everything is possible," he said, according to the Associated Press.

According to the UN more than 240 people have been killed in the country since popular protests broke out in April after Nkurunziza made his announcement that he would seek another term in office.

Critics argued the move was illegal due to the two-term limit outlined in the country's constitution, which was established in 2005 after a decade-long civil war. The nation's high court ultimately cleared Nkruniziza to run again, determining that it was legal because he had been appointed to his first term rather than democratically elected.

The protests quickly turned violent, with police — largely loyal to Nkurunziza's administration — carrying out a brutal crackdown on demonstrators, while opponents and supporters clashed with each other in the streets of Bujumbura. The country's army remained mostly neutral during the unrest, although many soldiers deserted back in the spring after a former general carried out a failed coup. Nkurunziza ultimately won reelection at the end of July and as he was sworn into office for a third term the situation shifted to politically motivated violence, disappearances, and assassinations on both sides.

More than 200,000 Burundians have fled to Rwanda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other neighboring states. Meanwhile, assassins have targeted supporters of Burundi's government, military officials, journalists, opposition members, and human rights workers and their families. Reports of dead bodies in the streets of the capital have regularly surfaced on social media, and security raids on alleged rebel groups have also occurred.

But the violence on Friday had a different feeling, as opposed to sporadic killings or dead bodies appearing in the streets, today's incident saw physical clashes between armed men and security forces for the first time since an earlier failed coup attempt in May.

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There have been rumors of a militarized armed insurgency for weeks now, according to Cara Jones, a political science professor and Burundi expert at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia. The government has even spent time in recent weeks carrying out raids and seizing arms in rural parts of the country. Even Jones expressed a bit of surprise at the morning events, not necessarily because it occurred in the capital, but how well it worked. "What is surprising is that they managed to pull it off," she said.

As of nightfall in Bujumbura, it was not clear exactly who the armed men were, what their goals were, and what — if any — affiliations they have to other groups or causes. While many world leaders have referenced fears of genocide and compared the situation to the ethnically fueled conflict that tore through Rwanda in the 1990s, the dueling sides in Burundi are not currently defined along ethnic lines.

One thing that is clear, however, is that there are various levels and factions of people opposed to Nkurunziza's rule and they are not necessarily united under the same goal.

"You've got this whole constellation of opposition who all have very different goals, and perhaps very different approaches," Jones said, explaining that its unlikely they were unified behind the violence today. "I hesitate to suggest that the opposition would all be behind this particular action."

For example, as Jones explained, there are those within the ruling CNDD-FDD party who have been quietly opposed to Nkurunziza's rule. With this aspect of the opposition, which is technically part of the government, it's not clear where their loyalties do or do not lie.

Outside of the government, there is the youth oriented opposition movement that was largely behind the street protests in the spring. This movement is centered around Bujumbura and its members do not appear to be armed, but they are extremely vocal in their disagreement with the current government.

Beyond that, there is an opposition in the diaspora comprised of political elite. And lastly, there are the rumored armed groups. According to Jones there is a real armed movement, particular visible in Friday's events.

"What's scary about this is it is starting to look more and more alarmingly... like what went on in [1993] and that precipitated the worst of the civil war violence," she added. "If we're in fact seeing an echo of that then we're in trouble."

While the UN and US government have been warning of the growing risk of civil war in the country and mulling intervention possibilities, Jones said now is the time for international involvement. Some of the possibilities include the deployment of a recently created African Union standby force, using UN peacekeepers from the mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and continuing to push peace talks and dialogue under the lead of the East African Community and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

Jones said that the time is ripe for a armed insurgency to develop over the next couple weeks, due to the upcoming Christmas holiday lull coupled with a failing economy. 

"The time to think about intervention or to think about serious peace talks between opposition and government is right now," she said. "If they do not stop this, if this is an echo of '93 this is going to be terrible for everyone involved." 

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB

Watch VICE News' documentary Violence and Protests on Polling Day: Burundi On The Brink: 

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