September 22, 2015 / 1:10 AM / in 2 years

Rival forces in Burkina stand-off ahead of mediation mission

Anti-coup protesters sing the Burkinabe national anthem in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, September 22, 2015.Joe Penney

OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - The elite soldiers behind a coup in Burkina Faso defied an ultimatum on Tuesday to surrender to regular troops loyal to the government, leading to a stand-off in the capital as they awaited a mediation mission by regional presidents.

Loyalist forces marched into Ouagadougou overnight saying they would disarm the 1,200-strong presidential guard, whose putsch just weeks before an Oct. 11 poll threatens to derail a transition back to democracy after last year's overthrow of longtime leader Blaise Compaore.

But as a 10 a.m. deadline to surrender passed, coup leader General Gilbert Diendere stood firm, saying he remained head of the junta and would await West African regional leaders' mediation efforts.

"I'm not stalling for time. I'm within the time allotted to me," he told a news conference. "We don't want to fight. We will defend ourselves if need be, but we do not want to spill blood to stay in power."

Coup leaders and loyalist officers negotiated throughout the morning, and army chief General Pingrenoma Zagre said he would give time to the mediation efforts.

"In certain circumstances, there must be discernment and common sense in order, as much as is possible, to avoid fighting," he told the news channel France 24.

Following an emergency summit of the regional bloc ECOWAS in Nigeria, it was announced that the leaders of Senegal, Togo, Benin, Ghana, Niger and Nigeria would travel to Ouagadougou on Wednesday to ensure the reinstatement of President Kafando.

The summit also demanded that the presidential guard "lay down their arms and other military forces refrain from using force, in order to prevent the loss of lives".

Last year, mass street protests toppled Compaore as he attempted to force through changes to the constitution to extend his 27-year rule. In the process, Burkina Faso had become a beacon for democratic aspirations in Africa, where veteran rulers in countries from Rwanda to Congo Republic are seeking to scrap term limits.

"SIGNS OF HOPE"

Diendere, Compaore's former intelligence chief and right-hand man, said he had acted to prevent the disbandment of the presidential guard and against a decision to prevent Compaore's allies standing in the election.

Overnight, he freed Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, who had been held captive since soldiers stormed a cabinet meeting on Wednesday. Interim President Michel Kafando, who had been released earlier, took refuge on Monday night in the French ambassador's residence.

At the start of the ECOWAS summit in Nigeria's capital Abuja, hosting President Muhammadu Buhari said there had been signs of hope during the day.

"I am delighted today that there are reports of some measures of understanding reached towards the resolution of the crisis," he said, without elaborating.

In the end, the summit asked the African Union and the international community to forego imposing sanctions upon Burkina Faso.

The former French colony, is an ally of the United States and France in their fight against Islamist militants in the region, and hosts some 200 French special forces.

France announced on Monday that it had suspended its military and financial aid to the country until the civilian government was restored.

Crowds came out on the streets of Ouagadougou early on Tuesday morning chanting their support for the army's attempt to force Diendere to surrender. But as the deadline approached, most of them fled indoors.

Senegalese President Macky Sall, the current ECOWAS head, had announced a draft deal on Sunday that included amnesty for the coup leaders. But this was swiftly rejected by civil society and opposition politicians, who said they had not been consulted.

Additional reporting by Joe Penney in Ouagadougou, Makini Brice in Dakar and Felix Onuah and Julia Payne in Abuja; Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Joe Bavier; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Toni Reinhold

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