Burkina army tightens grip as protesters denounce power grab

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Ouagadougou (AFP) - Burkina Faso's army seized control of the capital's main square on Sunday, firing tear gas and shots in the air to disperse thousands of protesters denouncing a power grab by the military.

Troops moved into Place de la Nation in Ouagadougou and took over the national television headquarters, in both a show of force and defiance against calls by the international community and protesters for a return to civilian rule.

The military had stepped into the power vacuum left by president Blaise Compaore, who was forced to resign in the wake of violent street demonstrations over his 27-year-rule of the west African state that some have likened to the Arab Spring.

But international mediators brandished the threat of sanctions if the army refused to back down and allow a civilian transfer of power.

The UN envoy for west Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, told a news conference in the Burkinabe capital that he and African leaders had pressed the demand in a meeting with the country's top military brass.

If the army refuses, "the consequences are pretty clear", he said. "We want to avoid having to impose sanctions on Burkina Faso."

The US State Department also called on the military to immediately transfer power to civilian authorities.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters, furious at plans to extend Compaore's rule in the impoverished landlocked country, had massed on the streets of Ouagadougou on Thursday, some going on a rampage and setting the parliament and other public buildings ablaze.

Under Burkina Faso's constitution, the speaker of parliament was supposed to step in as interim head of state following the president's resignation.

- 'Zida go!' -

But the army instead named the second-in-command of the presidential guard, Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida, as head of the transitional authority.

Zida, 49, said he was appointed to ensure a "smooth democratic transition" and promised to consult with the political opposition and civil leaders.

He met Sunday with opposition leaders including the bloc's main chief Zephirin Diabre, former prime minister Roch Marc Christian Kabore and ex-foreign minister Ablasse Ouedraogo.

The talks came after several thousand people joined a march against the military earlier Sunday.

"No to the theft of our victory, long live the people!" said one banner, while others read: "The soldiers have stolen our revolution", "Zida get out!" and "Zida is Judas."

Some protesters headed to the national television headquarters, where two opposition leaders sought to go on air to declare themselves interim chief.

Former defence minister Kouame Lougue -- whose name was chanted by thousands in the streets following Compaore's downfall -- told AFP: "The people have nominated me. I came to answer their call."

But the technicians walked out, interrupting transmission, also foiling a bid by Saran Sereme, a former member of the ruling party, to make her claim as leader of the transition.

The mediators from the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States told Zida and other military leaders that civilian rule needed to be restored.

They "assured us that they had well understood the message", Chambas said.

But US State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki voiced international mistrust at the army's move, saying the United States condemned its attempt to "impose its will" on the people of Burkina Faso.

"We urge civilian leadership to be guided by the spirit of the constitution of Burkina Faso and to move immediately towards free and fair presidential elections," she said in a statement.

The West African regional bloc ECOWAS urged dialogue and restraint.

Opposition figures have said around 30 people were killed in Thursday's violence that hit the capital and at least one other city. AFP could confirm only four deaths.

Shortly after the military named Zida as interim leader, opposition and activist leaders had issued a joint statement demanding a "democratic and civilian transition" in the country of nearly 17 million people.

"The task of managing the transition falls by right to the people. In no case can it be confiscated by the army," it said.

Compaore and his wife have taken refuge in neighbouring Ivory Coast where they are being put up in a luxury government mansion in the capital Yamoussoukro.

- Bitter disillusion -

The crisis in Burkina Faso -- known as Upper Volta in its era as a French colony before becoming independent in 1960 and changing its name in 1984 -- is the worst since a wave of unrest three years ago.

From March to June 2011, a wave of army mutinies swept the country, alongside public protests over high food prices, unemployment and the looting of property by troops.

Compaore was only 36 when he seized power in a 1987 coup in which his former friend and one of Africa's most loved leaders, Thomas Sankara, was ousted and assassinated.

In the manner of a number of sub-Saharan African leaders, he clung to power for the following decades, being re-elected president four times since 1991.

The uprising that finally forced him out was sparked by plans to change the constitution to allow Compaore to stand yet again for elections next year.

He leaves bitter disillusion behind. Burkina Faso languishes at 181 out of 187 countries on the UN Human Development Index.

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