Burkina Faso coup leaders offer olive branch as protests mount

By Mathieu Bonkoungou and Nadoun Coulibaly OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Leaders of a coup in Burkina Faso said on Friday they had freed the president and reopened borders, in an apparent olive branch as they faced a growing confrontation with crowds of protesters demanding they end their rebellion. Soldiers loyal to coup leader General Gilbert Diendere still appeared to be in control of key sites in the capital such as the main square and the presidential palace. But they had to shoot in the air to disperse hundreds of people who threw stones, burned tires and blocked streets in the capital, demanding the return of the interim government. The junta also came under growing diplomatic pressure to step back as the presidents of Benin and Senegal flew in to mediate and the African Union suspended Burkina Faso's membership of the bloc and warned of sanctions. Soldiers from Diendere's elite presidential guard (RSP) burst into a cabinet meeting and arrested interim President Michel Kafando and ministers on Wednesday, derailing a delicate political transition in the West African nation. Kafando had stepped in as an interim leader after the last president, Blaise Compaore, was driven from power last year. The country was less than a month away from Oct. 11 elections meant to restore democracy. The power grab has triggered a wave of condemnations from the United States, former colonial power France and the United Nations, which demanded the restoration of the election schedule. MEDIATION Senegalese President Macky Sall, the current head of the West African ECOWAS bloc, and Benin's President Thomas Boni Yayi flew to Ouagadougou and met coup leaders and members of the transitional government. No public statements were released and discussions with ministers and civil society continued on Friday evening. In an apparent conciliatory gesture, Diendere's 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". Just before the meeting, Diendere said Kafando had been released and was in his official residence, though the interim president did not appear or release any statement himself. France's ambassador to Burkina Faso, Gilles Thibault, said via Twitter that he had visited Kafando and the interim leader was doing well, without going into further details. Coup leader Diendere was a former spy chief and the right hand man of the last president Compaore. He says the putsch was triggered by a transitional government proposal to dismantle his presidential guard and a fear of instability after Compaore's supporters were barred from standing in the vote. PROTESTS Anti-putsch protests that began in the capital persisted and spread into other cities on Friday. A crowd of mostly women in Burkina Faso's second largest city Bobo-Dioulasso carrying brooms and spatulas to represent the family marched towards the army base there. "We simply want ... the return of Kafando so he can complete the transition," said Tore Roland, a protester reached by telephone. Security forces in the city for a second day appeared to defy the coup leaders and allow the protests to go ahead. The northern town of Ouahigouya was also paralyzed by anti-coup demonstrations. France warned its citizens to stay indoors to avoid patrolling soldiers and protest marches. After nightfall, the streets of the capital virtually emptied in compliance with a new curfew. The last president, Compaore, was driven out of office in October last year, amid 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. (Additional reporting by Joe Penney and Makini Brice in Dakar; Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Emma Farge; Editing by Joe Bavier and Andrew Heavens)