Burkina power struggle as army group 'take country in hand'

A crowd gathers on Oct 31, 2014 in front of army headquarters in Ouagadougou, demanding that the army take over following the resignation of the president. A group of Burkina Faso army officers claimed on Friday to have "taken the destiny of the
A crowd gathers on Oct 31, 2014 in front of army headquarters in Ouagadougou, demanding that the army take over following the resignation of the president. A group of Burkina Faso army officers claimed on Friday to have "taken the destiny of the nation in hand" as deposed President Blaise Compaore reportedly fled the capital. -- PHOTO: AFP

OUAGADOUGOU (AFP) - A group of Burkina Faso army officers claimed on Friday to have "taken the destiny of the nation in hand" as deposed President Blaise Compaore reportedly fled the capital.

Only hours after the head of the army Navere Honore Traore said he was assuming power, he was challenged by a deputy commander of the presidential guard and a leader of one of the civil society groups who helped lead the street protests that toppled the president.

Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Yacouba Zida appeared alongside lawyer Guy Herve Kam of the Citizen Broom group in Ouagadougou's huge Place de la Nation, scene of some of the fiercest clashes during mass demonstrations that ousted Compaore after he tried to extend his 27-year rule of the poverty-stricken west African country.

Zida later ordered the closing of the country's borders.

Compaore had earlier fled towards the south of the country, according to a French diplomatic source, apparently heading for the town of Po, near the border with Ghana.

Paris said Compaore would have little difficulty leaving as he was not subject to an international travel ban, though the source said he was still in the country and had not asked for refuge in France.

The power struggle to replace him comes after an extraordinary week of popular revolt that culminated in protesters storming and setting fire to parliament.

Observers have drawn a parallel between the protests and the Arab Spring, while the situation is being closely watched across Africa, where at least four heads-of-state are pushing similar constitutional change to cling to power.

Army chief Traore said he would take power "in line with constitutional measures", a move hugely unpopular with the protesters, who see him as a close ally of Compaore.

"We do not want General Traore in power. We need someone credible. Traore is Blaise Compaore's henchman," said Monou Tapsoaba, an activist with the opposition People's Movement for Progress.

Compaore had initially rejected calls to resign, prompting the demonstrators to gather outside the city's military headquarters, chanting: "Blaise, get out!"

France's President Francois Hollande vowed that Paris would "contribute to calming" the situation in its former colony, while Washington urged "a transfer of power in accordance with the constitution".

The EU called for the people of Burkina Faso to have the final say in who rules their country.

The protests forced Compaore to withdraw plans on Thursday to try to change the constitution to extend his rule, although he had then vowed to stay in power for another year.

The protests started as lawmakers prepared to vote on legislation that would allow 63-year-old Compaore to contest elections in November 2015.

They have plunged Burkina Faso into its worst crisis since a wave of mutinies shook the country in 2011.

Compaore was only 36 when he seized power in a 1987 coup in which his former friend Thomas Sankara was ousted and assassinated.

Compaore is one of a number of sub-Saharan African leaders who have stayed in power for decades.

His bid to cling to power angered many, particularly young people in a country where 60 percent of the population of almost 17 million is under 25.

Many have spent their entire lives under the leadership of one man and are disillusioned by the establishment running the poor former French colony, which is stagnating at 183rd out of 186 countries on the UN human development index.

Some Burkinabe protesters have likened the protest to the Arab uprisings that began in 2010.

"Oct 30 is Burkina Faso's black spring, like the Arab Spring," Emile Pargui Pare, an official from opposition party the Movement of People for Progress, told AFP earlier this week.

Burkina Faso's army chief announced on Thursday that the government had been dissolved. The army imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and pledged to restore constitutional order within 12 months, in a statement signed by Traore.

But leading opposition politician Benewende Sankara described the army's move as a "coup".

Many of the tens of thousands massed on the streets of the capital called for retired general and former defence minister Kouame Lougue to take control, shouting: "Lougue in power!"

Opposition leaders gave the death toll from Thursday's violence as "around 30".

Envoys from the UN, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were expected Friday in Burkina.

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.