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Burkina Faso Coup Leaders Release President As Security Forces Squash Protests

The decision to free interim President Michel Kafando appeared to signal flexibility by the military junta following this week's government takeover.
September 18, 2015, 7:10pm
Photo by Joe Penney/Reuters

The military junta in Burkina Faso that took power in a coup freed interim President Michel Kafando and two of his ministers from detention Friday, as security forces fired in the air to quell protests that cropped up in the streets of the capital.

The decision to free Kafando appeared to signal possible flexibility by General Gilbert Diendere and the junta ahead of talks Friday with Senegalese President Macky Sall. Sall is chairman of the Economic Community Of West African States, a regional group of 15 countries.

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Sall and Benin President Thomas Boni Yayi are due to mediate in the wake of Thursday's coup that was condemned by the United States, former colonial power France and the United Nations. All have demanded the resumption of a democratic transition.

"I confirm that President Kafando has been freed. He is in good health," Diendere told journalists, adding that interim Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida was under house arrest.

Related: A Coup Has Been Declared in Burkina Faso

The takeover derailed a transition that started last October after street protests toppled President Blaise Compaoré after 27 years in power. Compaoré was forced to step down last year as a result of the mass protests against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed him to present himself for re-election.

That uprising became a beacon for democratic aspirations in Africa at a time when long-term and authoritarian rulers from Rwanda to Congo Republic are seeking to scrap term limits.

As part of the transition process, the people of Burkina Faso were set to head to the polls on October 11 to vote for president, in what would be the country's first democratic change through an election.

Speaking to reporters Thursday night, United Nations Under-Secretary General Jeffrey Feltman said the UN's special representative for West Africa had met with Diendere and demanded an end to the coup and for the transitional government and calendar to be restored.

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"The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest terms the unconstitutional and forceful seizure of power," Feltman said, before Kafando's release had been secured. The Security Council urged the perpetrators to restore constitutional order and return power to the civilian transitional authorities without delay.

Diendere was Compaoré's military advisor and he said the putsch was triggered by a transitional government proposal to dismantle the presidential guard and a fear of instability after Compaoré's supporters were barred from contesting elections.

The presidential guard is a 1,300-strong elite military unit that was widely considered to be the president's iron fist under Compaoré's rule. Prime Minister Zida was a former military officer and presidential guard member himself. He had previously tried to disband the regime in February, but ultimately changed his mind. Zida had also announced that a dozen members of the presidential guard would be moved to different units — a decision that had triggered an intense, if short-lived, political crisis.

Security forces in Ouagadougou fired in the air on Friday to disperse demonstrators who burned tires and blocked neighborhood streets on a second day of protests against the coup. At least three died and 60 were wounded on Thursday.

Related: Burkina Faso on The Brink of Political Crisis Ahead of Presidential Election