BUJUMBURA, Burundi — Police vanished from the streets of Burundi's capital Wednesday as thousands of people celebrated a coup attempt against President Pierre Nkurunziza, who was reportedly in a neighboring country for a conference.
During almost three weeks of unrest in which 15 people were killed, the military has been acting as a buffer between police and protesters who oppose Nkurunziza's bid for a third term, saying it violates the Constitution and Arusha peace accords that ended a civil war here.
An army general said on a private radio station Wednesday that Nkurunziza's mandate is over. Whether the general had the support of the entire military was unclear but people thronged Bujumbura's streets and applauded soldiers who rode around in tanks and trucks. Some of them smiled and one raised his rifle to acknowledge the cheering crowd.
Nkurunziza was reportedly in the neighboring country of Tanzania for a summit to end the unrest. But by late Wednesday afternoon, he had still not been seen by journalists at the State House in Dar es Salaam where the meeting of the East African heads of state took place.
The president of Tanzania, Jikaya Kiwkete who chaired the summit, said the leaders condemn the coup and called for return to constitutional order.
In a statement, he also said the summit participants also want authorities in Burundi to postpone the June vote because "the current situation is not conducive for elections."
Earlier in Burundi's capital, army troops surrounded the state radio offices.
Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare read a statement broadcast by Bonesha FM radio, saying the president had violated the Constitution and the Arusha peace accords by seeking a third term.
"Given the necessity to preserve the country's integrity ... President Pierre Nkurunziza is dismissed from his functions," Niyombare said.
The general announced the creation of a temporary ruling committee to re-establish stability which he will head.
Soon after, the police melted away and people thronged the streets in celebration.
In February, Nkurunziza fired Niyombare as the director of the national intelligence service, replacing him days later with Brig. Etienne Ntakirutimana.
On Wednesday morning, before Niyombare made his announcement, police fired tear gas and water cannons to repulse protesters trying to enter Bujumbura's central business district. A group of women protesters managed to infiltrate the police cordon and entered the central business district.
An Associated Press journalist was present when a police officer fired around five single shots at the protesters in Bujumbura. Whether there were casualties was unclear.
The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, had also traveled to Dar es Salaam to contribute to the emergency meeting, according to a statement from the U.S. State Department. Thomas-Greenfield was to express U.S. concern about the situation in Burundi as well as U.S. support for political dialogue among all parties to ensure peaceful, credible and inclusive elections in Burundi, the statement said.
In addition to the 15 fatalities, more than 220 have been injured in the protests, according to Burundi's Red Cross. More than 50,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries fearing violence ahead of the elections, according to the U.N. refugee agency. The protests started on April 26, a day after the ruling party nominated Nkurunziza to run for re-election.
Burundi's Constitution states a president can be popularly elected to two five-year terms. Nkurunziza maintains he can run for a third term because parliament elected him for his first one, leaving him open to be popularly elected to two terms.