OUAGADOUGOU, April 14 (Reuters) - Supporters of Burkina Faso's leader rallied at the weekend to press for a referendum on removing limits to presidential terms, the clearest sign yet that he may seek re-election in 2015.
Blaise Compaore - in power since leading a coup in 1987 - has positioned himself as a power broker in West Africa and a key ally for France and the United States in the fight against al Qaeda-linked Islamists in the Sahara-Sahel band.
His supporters have said he wants to extend his rule, though he has not publicly stated his plans. That has aggravated political tensions, while mass defections from Compaore's party this year and series of protests by soldiers and civilians in 2011 underscore rising challenges to his influence.
"He (Compaore) is a democrat and a republican. His plan is to seek your opinion in a referendum," Assimi Kouanda, executive secretary of Compaore's CDP party, told tens of thousands of supporters at a rally in Bobo Dioulasso, the country's second biggest town, on Saturday.
The country has a long and porous border with Mali, whose north was taken over by Islamists before France sent 4,000 troops to scatter insurgents last year.
Another neighbour is Niger, which has also been attacked by Islamists, and Burkina Faso hosts French special forces that are deployed in the region when needed.
The referendum would be over whether to alter Article 37 of the Burkinabe constitution, which was drafted in 2000 and limits presidents to two terms in power. Compaore secured his second, five-year mandate under the constitution in 2010.
"We have to allow the people to answer the question over the revision of the constitution in order to allow Blaise Compaore to continue Burkina (Faso's) development," Kouanda said at the rally, organised by the Republican Front, an umbrella organisation pushing for the change in term limits.
The landlocked nation is home to a growing gold mining sector but it grapples with poor harvests, food shortages and remains one of the world's poorest.
Compaore secured 81 percent of the vote in the last election in 2010. But a brief army mutiny in 2011 rattled Compaore's otherwise firm grip on the military and in January dozens of members of his party, including former close aides and key allies, quit to create a new movement to challenge him.
In January other opposition parties organised the country's largest march in living memory to mobilise people against plans to allow Compaore to stay in power.
"When there is a political dispute in a country ... if you allow people to provoke each other too long, there is a risk of a coup. Instead, let's ask the people," said Hermann Yameogo, an opposition leader who has joined the Republican Front and said he wanted a referendum in the name of peace.
Reporting by Mathieu Bonkoungou; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by John Stonestreet