Angry protesters have attacked the French embassy in Burkina Faso’s capital after supporters of the West African nation’s new coup leader accused France of harbouring the ousted interim president – a charge French authorities have vehemently denied.
Lt Col Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba was overthrown late on Friday only nine months after he had mounted a coup himself in Burkina Faso, which has been failing to effectively counter rising violence by Islamic extremists.
Comments by a new junta spokesman earlier on Saturday set into motion an outburst of anger in Ouagadougou, the capital.
Video on social media showed residents with lit torches outside the perimeter of the French embassy.
Lt Col Damiba’s whereabouts remain unknown but France’s foreign ministry issued a strongly worded statement: “We formally deny involvement in the events unfolding in Burkina Faso. The camp where the French forces are based has never hosted Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba nor has our embassy.”
Capt Ibrahim Traore, who was named in charge after the Friday evening coup was announced on state television, said in his first interview that he and his men did not seek to harm Lt Col Damiba.
“If we wanted, we would take him within five minutes of fighting and maybe he would be dead, the president. But we don’t want this catastrophe,” Capt Traore told the Voice of America.
“We don’t want to harm him, because we don’t have any personal problem with him. We’re fighting for Burkina Faso.”
Roads remained blocked off in Ouagadougou and a helicopter could be heard flying overhead.
An internal security analysis for the European Union seen by The Associated Press said there was “abnormal military movement” in the city.
As uncertainty prevailed, the international community widely condemned the removal of Lt Col Damiba, who himself overthrew the country’s democratically elected president in January. The African Union and the West African region bloc known as ECOWAS sharply criticised the developments.
“ECOWAS finds this new power grab inappropriate at a time when progress has been made,” the bloc said, citing Lt Col Damiba’s recent agreement to return to constitutional order by July 2024.
After taking power in January, Lt Vol Damiba promised to end the Islamic extremist violence that has forced two million people to flee their homes in Burkina Faso.
But the group of officers led by Capt Traore said on Friday that :t Col Damiba had failed and was being removed.
The new junta leadership said it would commit “all fighting forces to refocus on the security issue and the restoration of the integrity of our territory”.
But it remains to be seen whether the junta can turn around the crisis. Concerns are already mounting that the latest political volatility would further distract the military and allow the jihadis to strengthen their grip on the once-peaceful country.
For some in Burkina Faso’s military, Lt Col Damiba was seen as too cosy with former coloniser France, which maintains a military presence in Africa’s Sahel region to help countries fight Islamic extremists.
Some who support the new coup leader, Capt Traore, have called on Burkina Faso’s government to seek Russian support instead.
In neighbouring Mali, the coup leader has invited Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group to help with security, a move than has drawn global condemnation and accusations of human rights abuses.
Mali also saw a second coup nine months after the August 2020 overthrow of its president, when the junta’s leader sidelined his civilian transition counterparts and put himself alone in charge.
Chrysogone Zougmore, president of the Burkina Faso Movement for Human Rights, called the latest overthrow “very regrettable,” saying the political instability would not help in the fight against Islamic extremist violence, adding: “How can we hope to unite people and the army if the latter is characterized by such serious divisions?”