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Tutsi-led army stages quiet coup in Burundi

The coup arrived quietly and methodically Thursday, as stern soldiers waving automatic weapons took up positions around the capital, blocking off key roads, stopping cars and ordering people to go home.

Within an hour, the streets of the dusty city were deserted, and Burundians were huddled at home by the radio, listening to a government minister declare what many feared and others hoped for in this blood-spattered African nation.

Burundi's Tutsi-led military had seized power from a civilian government, raising the question of whether the coup would halt years of murderous conflict between Tutsis and Hutus _ or escalate it.

Military leaders shut the capital's international airport, closed the nation's borders, abolished the elected parliament and named a former army major and Tutsi president, Pierre Buyoya, as the country's new president.

"Our first objective is to stop immediately the massacres and all forms of criminality that have prevailed in Burundi for the last three years," Buyoya told the nation in a radio address late Thursday. He also promised an eventual return to democracy.

Buyoya, regarded as a moderate, was installed over the ousted Hutu President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, who spent a second day hiding inside the U.S. ambassador's residence in Bujumbura. Ntibantunganya refused to concede his ouster.

The army said it took control to halt the ethnic slaughter that has taken 150,000 lives in Burundi over the past three years. Officers portrayed Buyoya, who pleased Hutus when he paved the way for Burundi's first Hutu president to assume office in 1993, as a man who could help restore peace.

"I have been a unifying figure," Buyoya said. "Maybe I could again save Burundi."

For months, the tiny nation has teetered on the edge of the same genocidal tribal madness that swept over neighboring Rwanda in 1994, when more than half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slain by Hutu extremists.

A rebel Hutu army, fighting on behalf of Burundi's majority Hutus, has been battling to oust the minority Tutsis from their positions of dominance in the military and government. The death toll from the fighting has reached an estimated 1,000 people per month.

Western governments and U.N. officials roundly condemned the Tutsi military coup, voicing concerns that Ntibantunganya's ouster and the exclusion of Hutus from the government would enrage the majority ethnic group.

The Burundian capital, largely a Tutsi stronghold, was mostly quiet at nightfall Thursday, with soldiers and police enforcing a new dusk-to-dawn curfew. Armored personnel carriers loaded with soldiers occasionally cruised past shuttered homes and stores along the deserted streets.

The coup took shape quickly. Ntibantunganya's demise was set in motion Tuesday when he was stoned by an angry Tutsi crowd at a funeral for 304 Tutsis massacred by Hutu rebels over the weekend. The Tutsis were angered that he had failed to condemn the massacre.

Then, the coalition government collapsed Wednesday when the main Tutsi party withdrew its support.

It is the second time that Buyoya, 46, has found himself in the presidency after a coup. As an army major, he overthrew another military ruler in 1987, and governed the country for six years.

After one massacre of Tutsis in 1988, he organized peace talks between the two rival ethnic groups that defused tensions and led to free elections in 1993.

In those elections, Buyoya ran for president, lost and stepped aside, allowing the Hutus to take power peacefully.

About Burundi

GEOGRAPHY: Landlocked. Total area: 10,750 square miles, slightly larger than Maryland.

PEOPLE: About 6-million (85 percent Hutu, 14 percent Tutsi, 1 percent Twa). Official languages: Kirundi and French. Roman Catholic, 62 percent; Protestant, 5 percent; traditional beliefs, 32 percent; Muslim, 1 percent. Literacy about 50 percent.

ECONOMY: Poor resources, mainly agricultural. Coffee accounts for about 90 percent of export earnings.

GOVERNMENT: Tutsi army paratroopers assassinated the first democratically elected Hutu president in October 1993. Ruled by a weak, ethnically mixed coalition government since a 1994 agreement between 12 political parties. The junior coalition partner, the Tutsi-dominated political party UPRONA, rejected the coalition Wednesday. Tutsi-led military says it has replaced Hutu President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya with a former Tutsi military ruler, Pierre Buyoya.