OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Soldiers fired warning shots to disperse hundreds of protesters outside Burkina Faso’s presidential palace on Wednesday after the presidential guard burst into a cabinet meeting and arrested the interim president, stirring fears of a military coup.
The presidential guard gave no explanation for its move, which came less than a month before an election due to complete a transition back to democracy after a popular uprising toppled Burkina’s long-time ruler last year.
The guard, known as the RSP, was a key pillar of former President Blaise Compaore’s rule before he was ousted by demonstrators last October when he attempted to change the constitution to prolong his 27 years in office.
Compaore, who seized power in a 1987 military coup in the poor, landlocked West African state, was a key ally of France and the United States in the fight against Islamists in the arid Sahel region.
Moumina Cheriff Sy, the head of the transitional parliament, said the latest show of strength by the presidential guard was a danger to the Burkinabe nation itself.
“Members of the RSP burst into the room of the cabinet of ministers at around 1430 and took hostage the president of Burkina Faso Michel Kafando, the Prime Minister Yacouba Izaac Zida, the minister of public administration ... and the minister of housing,” he said in a statement.
The apparent power-grab came just two days after a government commission recommended dismantling the well-equipped 1,200-strong force, calling it an “army within an army”.
In February, an attempt by the prime minister to reform the guard led to a political crisis as it attempted to force him to resign.
In a joint statement, the United Nations, African Union and West African regional bloc ECOWAS called for the immediate liberation of the officials and said those responsible would be held to account. They also voiced support for Burkina Faso’s transition back to democracy at the Oct. 11 polls.
A senior adviser to the head of the transitional parliament said that its members would march on the presidential palace to demand the release of the president and ministers.
“I call on all patriots to mobilize and defend the motherland,” Sy said.
Demonstrators who gathered on a main road leading to the presidential palace chanted “Down with the RSP” and “We want elections”. Witnesses said soldiers outside the palace fired several warning shots, which prompted the crowds to retreat several hundred meters but not disperse.
A Reuters witness said members of the presidential guard beat back demonstrators with batons. Gunfire was also reported in the nearby Ouaga 2000 neighborhood.
“I am against this repression of our members of government just a month before the election,” said protester Idrissa Pasoba, shouting above the crowd.
Leaders of the Balai Citoyen, a citizens movement which was instrumental in organizing the protests against Compaore in October, called its supporters onto the streets in protest.
Private station Radio Omega said on social media that presidential guard soldiers had fired warning shots outside the studio and forced journalists to shut down transmission. Several other Burkinabe radio stations also appeared to have stopped transmitting.
“They were ordered to cut off the antenna otherwise they would be killed,” said Alpha Barry, president director general of Radio Omega said on France 24.
A French security source said that around 20 soldiers from an intelligence gathering unit were being deployed to Ouagadougou to monitor the situation. France issued a travel warning to its citizens in the country to stay at home.
The RSP’s repeated political meddling since Compaore’s ousting has provoked street protests and prompted authorities to call for a review of the guard’s role.
Monday’s report recommended that the regiment be broken up and its members redeployed within the framework of a broader reform of the military.
Additional reporting by Mathieu Bonkoungou in Ouagadougou, Emma Farge and Makini Brice in Dakar; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Alison Williams