DAKAR/OUAGADOUGOU – The African Union has suspended Burkina Faso and will impose sanctions on coup leaders if they do not restore the interim government and release its leaders, it said on Friday.
Soldiers from the RSP elite presidential guard stormed into a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday and abducted President Michel Kafando and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, disrupting a transition period due to end with polls restoring democracy on Oct. 11. Gen. Gilbert Diendere, a former spy chief, was named junta head the next day.
The AU statement followed a meeting of the Peace and Security Council in Addis Ababa. It gave coup leaders 96 hours, or until Tuesday, to restore the transitional government or face travel bans and asset freezes.
“Council decides to suspend, with immediate effect, the participation of Burkina Faso in all AU activities,” it said, adding that members of the RSP linked to the kidnappings would be held legally accountable for their actions.
Burkina Faso, whose citizens toppled President Blaise Compaore last year as he sought to extend his 27-year rule, had been seen as a model by pro-democracy campaigners across sub-Saharan Africa.
The coup has been condemned by the United States, former colonial power France and the United Nations.
Leaders of the coup said Friday they had freed the president and reopened borders, in an apparent olive branch as they faced a growing confrontation with crowds of protesters demanding they end their rebellion.
Soldiers loyal to Diendere still appeared to be in control of key sites in the capital such as the main square and the presidential palace.
But they had to shoot in the air to disperse hundreds of people who threw stones, burned tires and blocked streets in the capital, demanding the return of the interim government.
Earlier, the presidents of Benin and Senegal flew in to mediate. Senegalese President Macky Sall, the current head of the West African ECOWAS bloc, and Benin’s President Thomas Boni Yayi flew to Ouagadougou and met coup leaders and members of the transitional government.
No public statements were released, and discussions with ministers and civil society continued Friday evening.
In an apparent conciliatory gesture, Diendere’s junta, the National Democratic Council, released a statement on state television saying it accepted the principle of mediation and reaffirmed “its intention not to stay in power for a long time.”
Just before the meeting, Diendere said Kafando had been released and was in his official residence, though the interim president did not appear or release any statement himself.
France’s ambassador to Burkina Faso, Gilles Thibault, said via Twitter that he had visited Kafando and the interim leader was doing well, without going into further details.
Coup leader Diendere was a former spy chief and the right-hand man of Compaore. He says the putsch was triggered by a transitional government proposal to dismantle his presidential guard and a fear of instability after Compaore’s supporters were barred from running in the vote.
Anti-putsch protests that began in the capital persisted and spread into other cities on Friday.
A crowd of mostly women in Burkina Faso’s second-largest city, Bobo-Dioulasso, carrying brooms and spatulas to represent families marched toward the army base there.
“We simply want … the return of Kafando so he can complete the transition,” said Tore Roland, a protester reached by telephone.
Security forces in the city for a second day appeared to defy the coup leaders and allow the protests to go ahead.
The northern town of Ouahigouya was also paralyzed by anti-coup demonstrations. France warned its citizens to stay indoors to avoid patrolling soldiers and protest marches.
After nightfall, the streets of the capital virtually emptied in compliance with a new curfew.
Compaore, was driven out of office in October last year amid mass demonstrations against his attempts to extend his rule.
That uprising became a beacon for democratic aspirations in Africa at a time when veteran rulers from Rwanda to the Republic of Congo are seeking to scrap constitutional term limits.