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Burkina Faso coup leaders free president, reopen borders

Soldiers burst into a Cabinet meeting & arrested the interim president and other ministers on Wednesday.

FILE: Burkina Faso’s interim president Michel Kafando has been freed by leaders of the coup. Picture: AFP.

OUAGADOUGOU - Leaders of a coup in Burkina Faso said on Friday they had freed the president and reopened borders, in an apparent olive branch to mediators and protesters who rallied in the capital and other cities against the putsch.

Soldiers loyal to coup leader General Gilbert Diendere shot in the air to disperse hundreds of people who burned tyres and blocked streets in Ouagadougou, many demanding the return of their interim government.

"I confirm that President [Michel] Kafando has been freed. He is in good health,"Diendere told journalists, before he met mediators from West Africa's Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) bloc.

His junta, the National Democratic Council, released a statement on state television saying it accepted the principle of mediation and reaffirmed "its intention not to stay in power for a long time".

Demonstrations in other cities and towns gained momentum on the second day of mass unrest, suggesting the coup was struggling to gain nationwide traction. At least three people were killed and 60 wounded in unrest on Thursday.

Soldiers burst into a cabinet meeting and arrested the interim president and other ministers on Wednesday, derailing a delicate political transition in the West African nation.

TRANSITION DERAILED

The power-grab came less than a month before 11 October elections meant to restore democracy after the last president, Blaise Compaore, was driven from power last year.

Coup leader Diendere was a former spy chief and Compaore's right hand man. He says the putsch was triggered by a transitional government proposal to dismantle his elite presidential guard and a fear of instability after Compaore's supporters were barred from standing in the vote.

The rebellion has triggered a wave of condemnations from the African Union, the United States, former colonial power France and the United Nations, which demanded the restoration of the election schedule.

Diendere said Kafando, who stepped in as interim president in the run-up to elections, was at his official residence, but he has yet to make a public statement since his release and it was unclear whether he was free to move as he pleased.

Diendere also said interim Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida was under house arrest.

France's ambassador to Burkina Faso, Gilles Thibault, said he had visited Kafando and the interim leader was doing well.

The last president, Compaore, was driven out of office in October last year, after mass demonstrations against his attempts to extend his 27-year rule.

That uprising became a beacon for democratic aspirations in Africa at a time when veteran rulers from Rwanda to Congo Republic are seeking to scrap constitutional term limits.

"I am worried and against the putschists. We are demonstrating because we want the (democratic) transition process to unfold," said one protester, Aissata Kabor.

Crowds rallied in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso's second largest city, in the south of the country. Security forces for a second day appeared to defy the coup leaders and allow the protests to go ahead.

The northern town of Ouahigouya was also paralysed by anti-coup demonstrations.