OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Angry protesters attacked the French Embassy in Burkina Faso’s capital on Saturday after supporters of the West African nation’s new coup leader accused France of harboring the ousted interim president, a charge French authorities vehemently denied.
Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba was overthrown late Friday only nine months after he’d 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 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.
Damiba’s whereabouts remained 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 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,” 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 ouster of 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 criticized the developments.
“ECOWAS finds this new power grab inappropriate at a time when progress has been made,” the bloc said, citing Damiba’s recent agreement to return to constitutional order by July 2024.
After taking power in January, Damiba promised to end the Islamic extremist violence that has forced 2 million people to flee their homes in Burkina Faso. But the group of officers led by Traore said Friday that 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 already were mounting Saturday 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, Damiba was seen as too cozy with former colonizer France, which maintains a military presence in Africa’s Sahel region to help countries fight Islamic extremists. Some who support the new coup leader, Traore, have called on Burkina Faso’s government to seek Russian support instead.
In neighboring 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.
“How can we hope to unite people and the army if the latter is characterized by such serious divisions?” Zougmore said.
Mednick reported from Barcelona.