OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Heavily armed troops crushed protests in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou after a former spy chief seized power in a military coup on Thursday, derailing a democratic transition that had inspired many in Africa.
At least three people were killed and more than 60 injured, according to hospital sources, when members of the presidential guard fired warning shots to disperse crowds and beat back stone-throwing demonstrators with batons.
Protesters demanded the release of the interim president and members of his government detained by the presidential guard on Wednesday, and the organisation of elections due on Oct. 11.
The vote was supposed to cap a return to democracy a year after unrest toppled President Blaise Compaore when he tried to extend his 27-year rule. The uprising became a beacon for democratic aspirations in Africa at a time when long-term rulers from Rwanda to Congo Republic are seeking to scrap term limits.
Thursday’s coup sparked condemnation from former colonial power France and the United States. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also demanded the release of detained officials and the resumption of the transition.
General Gilbert Diendere, the junta leader who for three decades was Compaore’s shadowy chief military adviser, said the trigger for the putsch was a proposal this week by the transitional government to dismantle the presidential guard.
But he said the underlying cause of the military power grab was fear of instability after the transitional government barred Compaore’s supporters from contesting the Oct. 11 election.
“There may be some kind of sanctions to face but we will ask the international community to be understanding of Burkina Faso,” Diendere told Reuters, promising to swiftly release the president and prime minister.
“We are going to discuss with the international community to see how quickly we can organise elections.”
Under Compaore, Burkina emerged as a regional ally of France and the United States against al Qaeda-linked militants. Burkina hosts some 200 special forces as part of France’s Barkhane regional anti-terrorist operation, while Diendere took part in U.S.-sponsored regional counter-terrorism exercises in February.
UNDERLYING PRO-COMPAORE AGENDA?
In contrast to October’s uprising when thousands of protesters packed the streets led by civil society groups like Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom), soldiers acted quickly to scatter groups of demonstrators.
The coup leaders forced private radio and television stations off the air, and journalists on the streets were threatened or beaten.
Many streets in the city centre were deserted and shops were closed, as sporadic gunfire rang out in several districts of the capital. Independence Square, which was the heart of October’s uprising, was occupied by soldiers.
“People started to gather, then in front of us we saw a V8 (military vehicle) that drove directly into the crowd and they started shooting, killing people,” said protester Bakary Zongo. “People started falling down.”
The military council announced the closure of land and air borders as well as the implementation of a curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. It said that senior ministry bureaucrats would carry on the business of government.
A towering figure, nearly 2 metres (6.56 ft) tall, Diendere had long preferred to operate behind the scenes. Under Compaore, he played a central role in negotiating the release of Western hostages seized by Islamist groups in the Sahel.
Although his wife is a member of Compaore’s Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), Diendere denied the coup was directly linked to the former president or his party. He said the junta would not interfere with investigations into Compaore, who is living in exile in neighbouring Ivory Coast.
The head of Burkina Faso’s transitional parliament called on the rest of the armed forces to step in and halt a coup by “a small group” of military officers.
“The transition was put in place by the will of the people...A small group of soldiers are not going to change that,” Moumina Cheriff Sy told Reuters, saying he was supposed to be the leader of the transition until Kafando was released.
Additional reporting by Joe Penney in Ouagadougou, Emma Farge and Makini Brice in Dakar, John Irish in Paris, Michelle Nicholas at the United Nations; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Mark Heinrich