Nairobi (AFP) - Deadly protests in Burundi against the president's bid for a third term has put the army in a pivotal role, standing between protestors, police and pro-government militia.
As clashes show little sign of ending, the army's stance has become increasingly important, but analysts warn its loyalties and the powerful influence it now exerts could change if the crisis degenerates further.
Almost 20 people have been killed, including protestors and police, since the ruling CNDD-FDD on April 25 nominated President Pierre Nkurunziza to stand for reelection, triggering daily protests.
"The army has affirmed its neutral role... it works to maintain order," one diplomat, who wanted to remain anonymous, told AFP.
Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority who has been in power since 2005, has come under intense international pressure to withdraw from the June 26 presidential poll.
Those demonstrating against the third term largely support the army, who they consider more neutral than a police determined to crush protests, including firing live bullets into the chanting crowds.
- 'Defuse the conflict' -
The army has regularly come between the police armed with AK-47 rifles and stone-throwing demonstrators, helping stem face-to-face street battles.
It is trying to "defuse the conflict", said Christian Thibon, a Burundi expert at France's University of Pau.
Burundi's 13-year civil war between the former Tutsi-dominated army and Hutu rebels -- made of up several sometimes competing factions -- ended in 2006, leaving some 300,000 dead.
As part of the Arusha Agreement in 2000, which paved the way for a final peace, the army and police were to be reformed with equal numbers of Tutsi and Hutu, in a country where Hutus make up some 85 percent of the people.
The new army succeeded in bringing together old enemies, earning a reputation for neutrality and professionalism among much of the population, an image burnished by peacekeeping missions abroad, including in the African Union force in Somalia.
In contrast, the police are accused of backing the ruling party's Imbonerakure youth group, a powerful force described by the UN as a militia and accused of a string of abuses and killings.
But as tensions and anger grows, experts say it is far from certain the army would choose the side of the majority of the population.
"It is not that simple," the diplomat said, pointing out the army is also divided along "political and ethnic" lines.
- Divisions within ranks -
Thierry Vircoulon, of the International Crisis Group (ICG), said there are "two conceptions of political neutrality" within the army.
"One means that the military does not question political orders... the other is that the army should not get involved in political struggles," he said. "We'll see which of these ideas prevail."
There are also clear divisions within the force.
Shortly after clashes began, Defence minister General Pontien Gaciyubwenge pledged the army's neutrality.
He called on all sides to "avoid any kind of undignified behaviour which could plunge the country back into the dark past that it has lived through."
But the next day, however, army chief of staff General Prime Niyongabo -- a loyal supporter of the president, who faces losing all if Nkurunziza steps down -- pledged the army's loyalty to the country's authorities.
"The commanders and their deputies are rarely of the same ethnic group -- and even less of the same political persuasion," the ICG said in a recent report about the army and police, noting that old allegiances dating back to the civil war are still very much alive, creating divisions with the institutions.
At the same time, those divisions could ironically help the army stay together.
"The two former enemies are working in harmony but the differences are still there -- but they are not confident enough to come together for a coup," said a former senior army officer, saying Tutsi soldiers would never act alone for fear of reprisals against Tutsi civilians.
While Burundi's post-colonial history has seen a series of coups, Thibon points out that the army is now "trapped in the logic of reconciliation" and would be unlikely to stage a "palace revolution".
Instead, only if instability grows drastically worse could Thibon see the army possibly take action -- after a request, for example, by the international community to intervene.