Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza entered the nation’s capital Friday in a large motorcade, greeted by crowds of cheering supporters decked out in ruling party clothing, after the arrest of three leaders of a failed military coup.
But the whereabouts of the main coup leader, Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare, weren’t known and officials said he was being sought.
Nkurunziza tweeted late Thursday that he had returned to Burundi from a visit to neighboring Tanzania after the coup collapsed and military support for the rebellion’s leaders dissolved.
“I congratulate the army and the police for their patriotism,” he said.
Nkurunziza surfaced first in his hometown and political stronghold of Ngozi before traveling by road to Bujumbura, the capital, where he headed to the presidential palace.
The small East African nation, situated in the volatile Great Lakes region, faced its worst crisis since the end of a civil war a decade ago after intense opposition to Nkurunziza’s bid for a third five-year term in office triggered weeks of protests and the coup attempt Wednesday.
The nation’s future remains unclear, with Nkurunziza facing international pressure to postpone elections due June 26. African and U.S. officials have criticized his bid for another term in office, saying it flies in the face of the constitution and the Arusha Agreement that ended the nation’s civil war.
Nkurunziza, 51, contends he’s entitled to another term because he was elected by parliament in his first term, not the public.
Although protest leaders called Friday for the resumption of demonstrations against a third term for Nkurunziza, the failed coup appeared to have taken the wind out of their sails. The president’s cause also appeared to have been set back by the strong international and local opposition to his third-term bid.
Loyalist forces gained the upper hand after the putschists' failure to grab control of the state radio station in heavy fighting Thursday. The arrests came after one of the coup leaders, former Defense Minister Cyrille Ndayirukiye, admitted to the French radio station RFI that the coup attempt had failed. He was among the three senior security officials detained.
Niyombare launched the coup when Nkurunziza was in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to discuss the Burundian crisis at a meeting of African leaders. The African leaders condemned the move but also resolved that conditions were not conducive to hold an election.
Presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe tweeted late Thursday, “Those who are used to rumors should stop. Match over.”
With independent radio stations attacked and closed in fighting Wednesday and Thursday, some fear Burundi may be entering a more repressive phase, especially if Nkurunziza ignores international pressure and presses ahead with elections. After the strife, the only radio outlet still operating was the state-owned station.
In an address posted on his website, Nkurunziza said it was obvious the weeks of protest against his third-term bid had been planned in advance and were designed to topple his elected government.
He said the protests had brought nothing but tears and sorrow to the country.
In an ominous development, a group of men in Bujumbura's Cibitoke suburb, where many demonstrations have taken place, said police warned them Friday that they would be treated as rebels and shot if they mounted new protests.
"Now we are no longer looking for protesters, we are looking for rebels," police told them, according to the Reuters news agency.
In his speech, Nkurunziza said those who “started fires” wouldn’t get far.
Follow @robyndixon_LAT on Twitter for news out of Africa