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Burkina Faso guards detain president, prime minister

Update: September, 17/2015 - 09:00

OUAGADOUGOU — Burkina Faso's presidential guard has detained the interim president and prime minister, plunging the west African country into uncertainty just weeks before the first elections since the ouster of ex-leader Blaise Compaore.

The detention of the nation's transitional leaders triggered immediate street protests outside the presidential palace where the men were being held.

Gunfire pierced the air as soldiers tried to disperse several hundred demonstrators, a witness saw.

It was impossible to immediately verify whether anyone had been wounded.

International condemnation was swift, with the United Nations and the African Union demanding the top officials be released immediately.

Members of Compaore's powerful Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) "burst into the cabinet room at 2:30 pm and kidnapped the President of Burkina Faso Michel Kafando and Prime Minister Isaac Zida, and two ministers (Augustin Loada and Rene Bagoro)," interim parliament speaker Cheriff Sy said in a statement.

Broadcasts by Radio France Internationale and the private Omega radio station were cut. Omega boss Alpha Barry told France 24 television that RSP troops had interrupted programming and threatened to kill staff if they did not stop transmitting.

Protesters marching on the presidential palace in the capital Ouagadougou to condemn the hostage-taking scattered as bursts of gunfire broke out around 7:30 pm (1930 GMT). By 2100 GMT, the occasional shot could still be heard, a witness at the scene said.

Crowds had gathered with whistles and vuvuzelas near the palace, shouting "Down with the RSP." The headquarters of Compaore's Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) party was ransacked in the evening.

Sy called the detention of the president and prime minister "a serious attack on the republic." "I call on all patriots to mobilise to defend the motherland," he said.

"Duty calls us because the Burkinabe nation is in danger. We call on the solidarity that active forces, political forces, civil society and the international community have with all the people of Burkina Faso to defeat this operation."

The country's main trade unions of the General Labour Federation of Burkina Faso launched a joint appeal "to observe a general strike throughout the national territory (... ) against the RSP interference in politics and for a true democracy." Compaore was toppled in October 2014 and fled into exile in Ivory Coast after a popular uprising triggered by his attempt to extend his 27-year rule.

A transitional government has been charged with running the poverty-stricken Sahel nation until presidential and legislative elections are held, the first round of which is to take place on October 11.

While the RSP's demands were not yet known, it has repeatedly tried to disrupt the ongoing transition.

On Monday the country's National Reconciliation and Reforms Commission recommended that the 1,300-man security force, considered the landlocked country's best troops, be disbanded.

'Say no to the coup' 

In a joint statement, the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) demanded "the immediate and unconditional release of the hostages." Separately, the UN Security Council condemned the detentions and urged "all actors in Burkina Faso to refrain from any violence." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also said he was "outraged" by the developments. "This incident is a flagrant violation of Burkina Faso's constitution and transitional charter," he said.

On the ground, the Balai Citoyen ("Civic Broom") movement, which was at the forefront of last year's anti-Compaore protests, called for protesters to gather to "say no to the coup d'etat under way," an appeal that was shared widely on social networks.

State television was broadcasting its usual cartoons and a football match.

Its buildings have traditionally been guarded by the RSP.

A local journalist said employees had left the broadcaster's offices as RSP reinforcements arrived.

The RSP sparked a brief political crisis in June by demanding the resignation of Zida, an army lieutenant-colonel and number two in the powerful regiment, who had publicly called for the unit to be dissolved in the interest of national security.

Supporters of Compaore are banned from standing in the upcoming elections under a controversial election law passed in April, which made anyone who supported "unconstitutional change" ineligible to run. — AFP

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