OUAGADOUGOU (AFP) - Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore was toppled on Thursday as the army took power after protesters set parliament ablaze in a popular uprising against the veteran leader’s 27-year-rule.
The demonstrators earlier forced the government to scrap a vote on controversial plans to allow Compaore to extend his reign, with tens of thousands of people joining a mass rally in the capital Ouagadougou calling for the strongman to go.
Hundreds of people stormed parliament and other public buildings including the national TV headquarters, ransacking offices and setting fire to cars, despite a heavy police and army presence across the capital.
The army, in a hastily arranged press conference, announced it was seizing power and pledged to restore constitutional order within 12 months.
It imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and announced the dissolution of Compaore’s government and the national assembly, and the creation of a transitional body to run the country.
The communique, read out by an officer, was signed by the army chief of staff Nabere Honore Traore.
There was no mention of Compaore’s whereabouts.
Earlier a statement purportedly from the presidency said a state of emergency had been declared.
“The army chief of staff is charged with carrying out this decree, which enters into force from this day,” it said.
The document was not dated and carried a signature that did not resemble the president’s usual one.
The United States, Burkina Faso’s former colonial ruler France and the African Union all voiced alarm over the unrest gripping the poor west African nation.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon dispatched a special envoy to help restore calm and the European Union called for an end to the violence.
“The army is united with the people,” said Benewende Sankara, a leading light in the opposition.
Army chief Traore had earlier met with retired general Kouame Lougue, a former defence minister being touted by the opposition as a replacement for Compaore, to discuss the crisis.
Tens of thousands of protesters massed on the streets of the capital shouting “Lougue in power!”
At least one man was killed in the chaos that erupted just before lawmakers were due to vote on legislation that would allow 63-year-old Compaore – who took power in a 1987 coup – to contest next year’s election, AFP correspondents said.
The government, in the country’s worst crisis since a wave of mutinies shook the country in 2011, later announced it was calling off the vote.
Police and soldiers, out in force after mass rallies earlier this week, failed to stop the onslaught despite using tear gas against the protesters.
Black smoke billowed out of smashed windows at the parliament building, where several offices were ravaged by flames, although the main chamber so far appeared to be unscathed.
Several hundred protesters also broke into the headquarters of the national television station RTB, pillaging equipment and smashing cars, correspondents said.
Crowds of people later massed near the presidential palace but were being held back by troops from the presidential guard who fired warning shots into the air.
The ruling party headquarters in the second city of Bobo Dioulasso and the city hall was also torched by protesters, witnesses said.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” about the crisis and criticised the attempts to alter the constitution, while France appealed for calm and said it “deplored” the violence.
Senegal meanwhile advised its citizens in Burkina Faso to stay indoors.
The legislature had been due to examine a proposed amendment that would allow Compaore to run for re-election in November 2015.
His bid to cling to power has angered many, including young people in a country where 60 per cent of the population of almost 17 million is under 25.
Many have spent their entire lives under the leadership of one man and – with Burkina Faso stagnating at 183rd out of 186 countries on the UN human development index – many have had enough.
The situation is being closely watched across Africa where at least four heads of state are preparing or considering similar changes to stay in power, from Burundi to Benin.
Compaore was only 36 when he seized power in the coup in which his former friend and one of Africa’s most loved leaders, Thomas Sankara, was ousted and assassinated.
He has remained in power since, re-elected president four times since 1991 – to two seven-year and two five-year terms.
Known in colonial times as Upper Volta, the landlocked country became independent from France in 1960 and its name was changed to Burkina Faso (“the land of upright men”) in 1984.