Autopsy lifts veil on iconic Burkina Faso leader's killing

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Ouagadougou (AFP) - An autopsy on the supposed remains of Burkina Faso's iconic former president Thomas Sankara showed he was "riddled with bullets" during a 1987 coup that brought longtime leader Blaise Compaore to power, lawyers said Tuesday.

Nearly three decades after his death, remains believed to be those of Sankara and 12 former aides were exhumed from a cemetery in the capital Ouagadougou in May.

It came as part of an investigation into the killing of the man dubbed Africa's "Che Guevara", launched five months after his friend-turned-rival Compaore was ousted from power in a popular uprising.

The circumstances of Sankara's death have been shrouded in mystery for 28 years.

Compaore, who was suspected of ordering the assassination of his former brother-in-arms, had dismissed calls for an investigation into Sankara's death.

Sankara's death certificate stated the 37-year-old former army captain died of "natural causes".

Several reports have since suggested he was executed by a hit squad at government headquarters on October 15, 1987 -- an account that appeared to be supported by the results of the autopsy.

"In terms of the (gunshot) wounds, what was found in relation to Thomas Sankara's body is really mind-boggling. We can say he was purely and simply riddled with bullets," Ambroise Farama, one of the lawyers representing Sankara's widow Mariam, told reporters.

"Concerning the others, one or two gunshot wounds were found here and there. But as far as Thomas Sankara was concerned, there were more than a dozen all over the body, even below the armpits," Farama said.

The lawyer said the position of the bullet holes showed he had "most probably raised his arms", as if to surrender.

There were bullet holes "everywhere, in the chest, the legs, everywhere," Farama added.

Farama stressed the family was still waiting for the results of DNA tests to confirm the body was that of the anti-imperialist revolutionary, but said "there is every reason to believe" it was the case.

Sankara's emphasis on pan-African solidarity, and measures to end dependency on foreign aid, endeared him to people in Burkina Faso and made him an icon of nationalists across the continent.

Most memorably, he changed the name of the former French colony from Haute-Volta to Burkina Faso, literally "land of the upright".

- Putschists among suspects -

Several people had already been charged over Sankara's killing, some of them soldiers who took part in a failed September coup by Compaore loyalists, another of the family's lawyers said.

"Eight or nine people have been charged", said lawyer Benewende Stanislas Sankara, who is not related to the late president, adding they included "soldiers from the ex-RSP".

The RSP was the acronym for the elite presidential guard behind an abortive coup last month. The regiment has since been disbanded.

The coup leader, Gilbert Diendere, is widely suspected of having headed hit squad that executed Sankara.

A former right-hand man of Compaore, he is being held on charges of "high treason" over the attempt to overthrow the transitional government that is charged with running the west African country until elections on November 29.

The military doctor who signed the death certificate claiming Sankara died a natural death has also been fingered in the probe has also been charged over his alleged role in the cover-up.

The Sankara family's lawyers said that while they could not be "completely affirmative" on the identities of the exhumed remains, some of the relatives who attended the autopsy, recognised their loved ones by items of clothing.

Fragments of a red tracksuit were found among bones unearthed in a grave believed to be that of Sankara.

Sankara, the lawyer, said the slain president was wearing a red tracksuit on the Thursday of his assassination, having made Thursdays a compulsory day of sport for the masses.

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