Burkina Faso declares state of emergency after protesters burn parliament
Anti-government movement hopes to unseat President Blaise Compaore
Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore declared a state of emergency on Thursday and pledged to open talks with the opposition, local radio reported, in a bid to defuse protests sparked by his attempt to extend his 27-year rule.
"A state of emergency is declared across the national territory. The chief of the armed forces is in charge of implementing this decision which enters into effect today," said the statement read by a presenter on Radio Omega FM.
"I dissolve the government from today so as to create conditions for change. I'm calling on the leaders of the political opposition to put an end to the protests. I'm pledging from today to open talks with all the actors to end the crisis," the statement said.
The move came after thousands of protesters marched on the presidential palace after burning the parliament building and ransacking state television offices earlier Thursday.
At least three protesters were shot dead and scores were wounded by security forces, emergency services said, as the vast crowd tried to storm the home of the president's brother and overran other state buildings.
It was not immediately possible to confirm the whereabouts of President Compaore, who seized power in the gold and cotton-producing West African nation in a coup.
West African regional bloc ECOWAS said that it would not accept any party seizing power through non-constitutional means during the political crisis.
The ECOWAS statement called on all sides in the crisis to engage in talks and welcomed the government's move to withdraw a plan to change the consitution to allow Compaore to stand for re-election next year.
The Canadian Embassy was closed for the day, but is expected to re-open tomorrow, the Canadian government said.
'We want change'
But there were signs of political manoeuvring. The military command announced it would issue a statement later in the day and opposition leaders said they had held talks with retired General Kouame Lougue, a former defence minister, about forming a transitional government.
A Reuters witness saw General Lougue march afterwards to the presidential palace with supporters, and soldiers at the scene said he was allowed inside with a handful of aides.
Crowds stormed parliament earlier in the day in protest against a vote due on Thursday on a government plan to change the constitution to allow the president to stand for a third term next year.
As protests spread, communications minister Alain Edouard Traore said the government had dropped the plan. But opposition leaders and demonstrators said they would not stop until the president left.
"We want Blaise Compaore to leave. We want change," said George Sawadogo, a 23-year-old student.
Ally of Western powers
Any move to depose Compaore, an ally of the United States and former colonial power France, would be closely watched by other governments across West and Central Africa, where a number of long-serving leaders are reaching the end of their constitutional terms.
Black smoke swirled in the air above parliament after demonstrators lit fires inside the building before looting computers and televisions screens and wheeling away police motorbikes, a Reuters reporter said. The headquarters of the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress party was also gutted by fire.
At the headquarters of state television, which was forced off the air after the building was taken, jubilant protesters posed on the set of the evening news program. Soldiers deployed outside state radio with an armoured personnel carrier to defend it from the crowd.
"The people have done most of the work. Now is the time for the soldiers to come to talk to us. We are waiting for General Lougue," said one protester, who asked not to be named, in the Place de la Nation, a vast open space in the centre of Ouagadougou that was packed with demonstrators.
Large protests also erupted in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina's second biggest town, and Ouahigouya, in the north of the landlocked country, which is surrounded by six other nations in the volatile Sahel region.
Washington, Paris call for calm
White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement that the United States was deeply concerned by the deteriorating situation in Burkina Faso and called on all parties to end the violence.
France, which has a special forces base there that conducts operations across the Sahel, also appealed for restraint by all sides. Local media reported that the French ambassador met opposition leaders.
Burkina Faso is one of the world's poorest nations but has positioned itself as a mediator in regional crises. It is also a key ally in Western operations against al Qaeda-linked groups in West Africa.
Compaore has ruled the nation with a firm grip but has faced increasing criticism in recent years, including defections by members of his party. He weathered a military and popular uprising in 2011 thanks to the support of his elite presidential guard.
Diplomatic pressure had mounted over the past year for Compaore to step down in 2015, amid calls from his own entourage for him to seek re-election, diplomats said.
Domestic opposition to his government hardened dramatically after it confirmed on Oct. 21 that it would seek a constitutional change.
With files from CBC News in Toronto