Burundi’s army said that 79 “enemies” and eight soldiers were killed during the bloodiest day in months of unrest Friday, which left the streets of the capital strewn with bodies, many bearing gunshot wounds.
The violence began with coordinated attacks by unidentified gunmen on three military installations, which triggered a fierce riposte from the security forces.
Several witnesses described the police and army going door-to-door in opposition strongholds in the capital Bujumbura, dragging out young men and executing them.
Army spokesman Colonel Gaspard Baratuza said all those killed were either “enemies” of the state, soldiers or policemen.
“The final toll of the attacks is 79 enemies killed, 45 captured and 97 weapons seized, and on our side eight soldiers and policemen were killed and 21 wounded,” Baratuza said.
The army had given a much lower toll after the assault Friday on two military bases and a military training college, saying that 12 rebel gunmen had been killed and 21 captured in the attacks.
But on Saturday morning horrified residents of different neighbourhoods awoke to find at least 39 corpses scattered in the streets.
“Fighting continued into the night and the corpses found in these neighbourhoods this morning are enemies,” Baratuza declared.
Several witnesses accused the security forces of extrajudicial killings, describing officers breaking down doors in search of young men and shooting them at close range.
Some of the victims had their arms tied behind their backs, they said.
The army spokesman declined to comment on the details of the fighting and deaths.
One witness in Nyakabiga, a hotspot of anti-government protest in recent months, described the victims as “kids” and said they had been shot execution-style “through the top of the skull”.
A resident of Musaga, close to the military college that was among the sites attacked on Friday, said there were more than a dozen corpses in the streets. “I have counted 14 dead bodies with my own eyes,” he said, blaming “soldiers and police” for the killings.
But government supporters were in triumphant mood, holding marches Saturday in Bujumbura and other towns under police protection to celebrate what they described as “the victory of our valiant army over the enemy.”
– Bodies buried in mass graves –
The government collected bodies from the streets of Bujumbura on Saturday, with sources saying they were swiftly buried in mass graves in the afternoon “to prevent the spread of disease.”
But some residents said they suspected the authorities of trying to hide evidence of a massacre perpetrated by the security forces, a view echoed by a European diplomat.
“There are dozens of bodies, but “The authorities are trying to make them disappear,” the diplomat, who spoke of “dozens of bodies in other protest districts, such as Mutakura and Cibitoke” on top of those in Nyakabiga.
The fighting was the worst outbreak of violence since a failed coup in May, sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office, which he later won in disputed elections in July.
The United Nations Security Council met Friday following a request from France, with UN chief Ban Ki-moon saying the attacks risked triggering “a further destabilisation of the situation” and urging all sides to hold back, according to his spokesman.
US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said that the Council was ready “to consider additional measures” against powerbrokers in the central African country who continue to block a political solution to the crisis.
Months of street protests against Nkurunziza have devolved into frequent armed attacks, with gunfire regularly erupting at night in Bujumbura and dead bodies a frequent sight on the city’s streets.
Attacks targeting the security forces have escalated, with rebels armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars attacking police convoys and targeting government installations.
UN figures released before Friday’s violence showed at least 240 people had been killed and more than 200,000 had fled abroad since May, raising fears of a return to civil war, a decade after the end of a 1993-2006 conflict between rebels from the Hutu majority and an army dominated by minority Tutsis.
Some 300,000 people were killed in the war, which began a year before a genocide of mostly Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda.
The Security Council said that sending UN peacekeepers to the nation remained an option, and stressed the need for urgent political dialogue.
US rights group Human Rights Watch called Sunday for a “serious and independent” inquiry to be carried out urgently into the latest violence in Burundi.
“This is by far the most serious incident, with the highest number of victims, since the start of the crisis in April,” Carina Tertsakian, HRW’s researcher for Burundi, said in a statement.
“A serious, independent investigation is urgently needed to find out the exact circumstances in which these people were killed.”
HRW said outside experts should help conduct the probe.
“Given the politicisation and corruption in the Burundian justice system, outside experts should be brought in to assist,” Tertsakian said.