May 25, 2015 / 2:59 PM / 2 years ago

Burkina Faso exhumes remains of former president in murder probe

OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Authorities in Burkina Faso began exhuming the remains of former president Thomas Sankara on Monday in a bid to establish responsibility for a murder that has dogged the West African country since 1987.

Sankara’s relatives have for years pressed for the remains to be tested, saying they suspect it may not be that of the former president, who died in a coup that brought his former ally Blaise Compaore to power.

Witnesses at the Daghnoen cemetery on the outskirts of the capital Ouagadougou said the exhumation of Sankara’s body and those of 12 colleagues had begun with the families of the victims and lawyers present.

“We are worried. What if these are not the bodies of the people who are supposed to be in these graves?,” asked Arouna Sawadogo, president of a civil society organization. “If we open the supposed grave of the president of Burkina Faso and it is not him, what will happen?”

Family members who witnessed the process told Reuters that only two of the 13 graves were exhumed by the end of the day and the process will continue on Tuesday with the exhumation of Sankara’s grave.

Bones and some remains of clothing were found in the two graves that were exhumed under a heavy police presence, the sources added.

Compaore faced questions about Sankara’s death throughout his presidency, but attempts to mount a judicial investigation stalled.

Compaore fled after a popular uprising against his rule in October last year and was replaced by an interim government led by Michel Kafando who promised to authorize an exhumation.

Sankara took power in a coup in 1983 and quickly established a reputation as a visionary nationalist and pan-Africanist, known for his charisma and trademark military red beret.

He nationalized land and mineral wealth, moved to improve health and education in the impoverished country, pressed for debt reduction, promoted women into leadership and changed the country’s name from Upper Volta.

Many African intellectuals viewed him as a model, not least because he appeared to eschew the luxury enjoyed by fellow African leaders.

Sankara’s sons Philippe and Auguste have provided DNA samples so experts can confirm whether the remains in the tomb are his. Any definitive attempt at identification may take weeks, experts said.

Reporting by Mathieu Bonkoungou; writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Bate Felix; editing by Janet Lawrence and G Crosse

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