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Burkina Faso coup leader makes U-turn, promises to hand back power; as abducted PM freed

Burkinabes demonstrating near the presidential palace, Wednesday after soldiers arrested Burkina Faso’s Transitional President and Prime Minister in Ouagadougou.
Burkinabes demonstrating near the presidential palace, Wednesday after soldiers arrested Burkina Faso’s Transitional President and Prime Minister in Ouagadougou.

The Burkina Faso Army general who seized power in a coup last week apologized to the nation, last Monday, has now admitted he is ready to hand over control to a civilian transitional government. This is just as the country’s military approaches Ougadougou, following warnings that its forces would converge on the capital and forcibly disarm the coupists behind the power grab.

Gen. Gilbert Diendere said his presidential guard unit “confirms our commitment to giving power back to civilian authorities,” in a communique issued to journalists, Tuesday. That was one of the key conditions of a draft agreement that resulted from weekend negotiations with regional mediators, but it had been unclear until his announcement whether the junta would abide by those terms.

Diendere, who led the presidential guard under longtime leader Blaise Compaore until he was forced from power in a popular uprising last year, said the compromises were necessary to avoid further bloodshed. The risk of clashes could lead to “chaos, civil war and massive human rights violations,” he said.

Earlier Monday, the heads of the National Armed Forces warned that troops would disarm the presidential guard. While they said soldiers aimed to do so without spilling blood, the ultimatum raised the specter of clashes on the streets of Ouagadougou.

“We demand that they put down their weapons and rejoin Camp Sangoule Lamizana,” the statement said, promising that the returning soldiers and their families would be protected.

People gathered at sunset cheering on the highway as they waited for the anticipated entry of Burkina Faso’s regular army, who vowed to disarm the presidential guard known as the RSP.

The soldiers who seized power last week are seen as loyal to ex-President Blaise Compaore. Diendere, the general installed as president Thursday, is a former top aide to the ousted leader.

Junta members said they were angered that members of Compaore’s former ruling party couldn’t take part in elections that were set for Oct. 11. Compaore was president for 27 years, and his bid to further extend his rule prompted massive street protests that led to his ouster.

The mediators led by the presidents of Senegal and Benin announced a plan late Sunday that calls for new elections by the end of November. The plan drafted by mediators is supposed to go before the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS in Nigeria on Tuesday.

The streets of Ouagadougou remained tense Monday, and many demonstrators said they felt the ECOWAS compromise plan was too lenient on the junta.

France, meanwhile, suspended all military, civilian and financial cooperation with Burkina Faso until civilian authority is restored.

French President Francois Hollande announced the suspension in a statement. He also threatened sanctions against anyone who opposes democratic elections, saying he would lobby European partners to do the same.

Hollande spoke Monday with Senegalese President Macky Sall about West African regional efforts to restore calm in Burkina Faso, a former French colony that maintains commercial and military ties with France.

Military authorities in Burkina Faso have confirmed that the armed forces were converging in the capital Ouagadougou to disarm the elite presidential guard “without bloodshed”.

The 1,200-member unit staged a coup on Wednesday, taking hostage the interim president and members of the government just weeks before Oct. 11 polls meant to restore democracy following last year’s overthrow of longtime leader Blaise Compaore.

“We ask them to immediately lay down their arms and go to Camp Sangoule Lamizana,” read the statement signed by several military chiefs, referring to a barracks in Ouagadougou.

“They and their families will be protected,” it added.

Mediators from regional bloc ECOWAS announced a draft agreement aimed at ending the crisis late on Sunday. However the proposal, which included an amnesty for the coup leaders, was swiftly rejected by civil society and opposition politicians.

Demonstrators protesting against coup leader General Gilbert Diendere and the ECOWAS deal erected barricades and burned tyres in several neighbourhoods across the capital on Monday.

Large protests were also organised in several other towns.

“There’s a potential civil conflict there now. If (Diendere) stays, the people will fight him,” said Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director for the International Crisis Group.

Also, Burkina Faso’s Yacouba Isaac Zida, who had been held hostage since a coup led by the West African nation’s elite presidential guard last week, has been freed, an advisor and a senior army officer loyal to the government confirmed.

The Prime Minister who was abducted along with the President, was freed early Tuesday, even as the whereabouts of the President is unknown.

“The prime minister is free. He has returned to his official residence (in the capital Ouagadougou),” said Lieutenant Boris Nadie, Zida’s aide-de-camp.

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