The president of Burkina Faso has declared a state of emergency following violent protests in the capital, hours after demonstrators stormed the parliament building and set fire to its main chamber. (Oct. 30)
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Burkina Faso's longtime leader refused to resign Thursday in the face of violent protests that posed the greatest threat to his nearly three-decade rule, saying instead he will lead a transitional government after parliament was dissolved.
Protesters stormed the parliament building and set part of it ablaze in a day of violence around the country to stop a parliamentary vote that would have allowed President Blaise Compaore to seek a fifth term in office. At least one person was killed and several others were wounded amid the melee, authorities said, and a curfew was put in place from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. A state of emergency was imposed for several hours but lifted late Thursday.
In a concession to the protesters, the government withdrew the bill from consideration. But the move did not placate the protesters, and Army Gen. Honore Traore, the joint chief of staff, later announced that government and parliament had been dissolved and a new, inclusive government would be named.
After hours of confusion about whether Compaore would hold on to power or even where he was, the president spoke briefly on television and radio to stay he was still in charge and would not step down.
"I am available to open discussions with all parties," he said in a recorded address. The transitional government will include representatives from all sides and work to hold elections within 12 months.
It was unclear if the opposition would agree to join a unity government, and the unrest unleashed Thursday underscored the threat Compaore now faces as frustrations mount in one of the world's poorest countries. In a sign of the growing unrest, crowds also attacked the homes of government ministers and looted shops in the country's second-largest city, Bobo Dioulasso, witnesses said.
"It is over for the regime!" and "We do not want him again!" shouted demonstrators when they heard that the vote on term limits had been stopped.
Flames enveloped the main building in the parliament complex, and many lawmakers fled to a nearby hotel.
"It is difficult to say what happens next, but things are out of control because the demonstrators do not listen to anyone," said Ablasse Ouedraogo, an opposition lawmaker.
The images of cars on fire and plumes of black smoke in the capital of Ouagadougou prompted alarm from the international community. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on all parties to end the violence, and is "saddened over the loss of life resulting from recent events," a statement said. Mohamed Ibn Chambas, a U.N. Special Representative, said he "deplores the deterioration of the security situation" and is scheduled to visit the country Friday.
In a bid to restore calm, military leaders met Thursday afternoon with the influential traditional chief of the country's largest ethnic group, the Mossi, according to Jonathan Yameogo, a spokesman for the ruling party.
Burkina Faso has long been known for its relative stability in volatile West Africa, though tensions have been mounting over Compaore's plans to extend his rule.
Compaore first came to power following the October 1987 coup against then-President Thomas Sankara, Compaore's longtime friend and political ally who ultimately was killed in the power grab.
He has been elected four times since, though the opposition has disputed the results.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement late Thursday that the U.S. welcomed Compaore's decision to withdraw the bill that would have allowed him to run again.
"We also welcome his decision to form a government of national unity to prepare for national elections and to transfer power to a democratically elected successor," the statement said.
Earlier, police in the capital had pushed the crowds back with tear gas, but they regrouped in larger numbers, surged past police lines and broke into the parliament building.
Since coming to power in a coup, Compaore, 63, has refashioned himself as an elder statesman who brokered electoral disputes and hostage releases throughout the region.
He made no secret of his support for Charles Taylor, the Liberian warlord turned president now serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone. The leader of Burkina Faso also has been accused of supporting rebel groups in Ivory Coast and Angola, though he later played the role as a peacemaker in Ivory Coast and elsewhere.
More recently, his government was involved in negotiating the release of several European hostages held by al-Qaida-linked militants in northern Mali. He also hosted the talks between Mali's government and separatist Tuareg rebels, leading to the agreement which made the July 2013 presidential election possible.
In 2011, Compaore encountered another crisis when multiple waves of protests washed over the country. The unrest began with students torching government buildings in several cities after a young man died in the custody of security forces, allegedly as a result of mistreatment.
Ordinary citizens took to the streets over rising food prices, and soldiers looted shops and stole cars to express their discontent over low pay. At one point in mid-April of that year, mutinous soldiers occupied the palace, forcing Compaore to flee.
But what would have spelled the end for many presidents was a mere temporary problem for Compaore, one he could maneuver his way out of by removing his security chiefs and appointing himself defense minister before returning to Ouagadougou.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Paris contributed to this report.
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