Clock turns back in Burundi

Violence could plunge the country back into a Hutu-Tutsi ethnic conflict whose wounds remain raw

Seventy thousand of its people have fled to neighbouring countries while gun battles could yesterday be heard across Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, where the uncertain fate of an attempted coup was being played out between army factions.

The violence, notionally about the right of President Pierre Nkurunziza to stand for re-election, threatens the fragile political deal that ended Burundi's bloody civil war in 2001 and could plunge the country back into the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic conflict whose wounds remain raw. An estimated 300,000 people died in the fighting and forced about a million people abroad.

Neighbouring states are deeply worried and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, commission chairwoman of the African Union, has called for "the return to constitutional order". "The region will not accept, nor will the region stand by, if violence does not stop or escalates," Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete warned at an east African summit on Wednesday, raising the possibility of an AU military intervention.

Burundi’s civil war pitted the military, at the time led by the ethnic Tutsi minority, against rebel factions of the majority Hutus, the biggest of which was led by Nkurunziza. The latter had been able to assume the presidency as part of a 2000 peace deal and the 2005 agreed constitution which strictly limited him to two terms – backed by the supreme court. However, the president has insisted his first term does not count because he was elected by parliament, not a popular vote.

Tutsi protests in Bujumbura over corruption, human rights violations, and what they saw as the president's threat to wider power-sharing elements of the peace deal spurred Major General Godefroid Niyombare, a former intelligence chief sacked in February, to launch a coup with support of sections of the army. With conflicting reports on whether the coup has been put down, the danger is that either way Burundi's relatively vibrant civil society, press freedoms and a more competitive political system has been put in jeopardy as the country's political clock is turned back.