Burundi protesters defy calls to end anti-government demonstrations

Protestors opposed to the Burundian president's bid for a third term march through the Nyakabiga neighborhood of Bujumbura on May 19, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Protestors opposed to the Burundian president's bid for a third term march through the Nyakabiga neighborhood of Bujumbura on May 19, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP 

BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AFP) - Protesters opposed to Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza called for him to step down on Tuesday, defying warnings to end weeks of demonstrations as security forces fired shots to restore order after a failed coup.

"We cannot stop the protests, because President Nkurunziza has not withdrawn his candidacy," said Bernard, a 34-year old unemployed man, angry at the president's bid for a third term in power.

But he also admitted that the "numbers of protesters were diminishing because people fear the bullets... we've started to see soldiers firing to intimidate the population."

Hundreds gathered in groups in several districts of the capital Bujumbura, chanting "No to violence!" although others gathered up piles of stones, apparently in case of attack by security forces. Others set up barricades in the streets.

But groups scattered as troops fired warning shots, gathering again elsewhere to resume protest chants.

At least 20 people have died in weeks of street battles with security forces, before the demonstrations ended when generals launched a failed coup attempt last week. Protests then resumed Monday.

Mr Nkurunziza has been accused by rights groups of launching a campaign of repression against opponents and trying to silence independent media since coup leaders admitted defeat on Friday after fierce fighting with loyalist troops.

But the presidency dismissed such claims on Tuesday, saying it would never carry out "revenge" raids and promising fair trials for those arrested.

"Those involved in the shameful attempt to overthrow legitimate institutions will be arrested and prosecuted by the courts, and only by them - and it will be up to them to fix the punishment, as prescribed by law," a statement read.

Almost a week on since the coup attempt led by a top general - which saw soldiers battling each other on the streets - troops have largely replaced the police to stem the protests.

Bujumbura Mayor Juma Saidi warned in broadcasts at the weekend that "demonstrators will be considered as part of the coup, and security forces have been ordered to treat them as such."

- Journalists restricted -

But there were also signs of weariness among some protesters, some of whom have been on the streets since late April.

"The people, we're almost dying - there is no transport, there is no more money," said Deogratias, 55, an artist. He said that while he supported protests, he wanted them organised in a way so that people could still carry out day-to-day life.

More than 100,000 people have fled to neighbouring nations from political violence according to the UN.

Opposition and rights groups insist that Mr Nkurunziza's bid for a third five-year term is against the Constitution and the terms of the peace deal that brought an end to the country's 13-year civil war in 2006.

Mr Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader and born-again Christian who believes he has divine backing to lead the country, argues his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people.

For the first time on Tuesday, foreign journalists were barred from reporting on one area of protests, in the capital's Musaga district, with one policemen saying it was in the journalist's "interest" as the "security was not ensured".

Four key private radio stations were attacked and closed during the coup bid, and there is now virtually no independent media in the country, with government broadcasts relaying presidential messages.

Mr Innocent Muhozi, who heads Renaissance television and radio, tried on Tuesday to reopen the station, but was blocked by police. He called promises of press freedom by the presidency a "joke".

Several journalists, civil society and protest leaders have gone into hiding fearing arrest or attacks from government supporters.