Protesters storm Burkina Faso parliament, set fire

By Brahima Ouedraogo Associated Press

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso — Protesters stormed Burkina Faso’s parliament Thursday, dragging furniture and computers onto the street and setting the main chamber ablaze, in the most significant challenge to the president’s rule during his 27 years in power.

The protesters’ goal was to block a vote in parliament that would have increased term limits and allowed President Blaise Compaore to run for a fifth time. And they succeeded, at least for now as the prime minister’s office issued a statement saying it was canceling the vote.

The demonstrations are continuing, with protesters swarming other areas of the capital, Ouagadougou, and the country, and setting alight several buildings and ransacking the offices of the national television station. Its broadcasts and those of the state radio went off the air.

Tension has been building for months in this West African country once known for its relative stability in a volatile region. The protesters say it’s time for Compaore, who took power in a coup in 1987 and has since been elected four times, to step down from power.

“’It is over for the regime!” and “We do not want him again!” shouted demonstrators when they heard that the vote had been stopped. It could still be re-scheduled at a later date.

The bill would have amended the constitution to increase term limits and allow Compaore to run for election again next year, and the measure looked likely to pass.

The United States expressed concern about the unrest, in a statement issued by the White House press secretary’s office.

“We believe democratic institutions are strengthened when established rules are adhered to with consistency,” it said.

Flames enveloped the main building in the parliament complex, and many lawmakers, who had been inside when the protesters broke in, fled to a nearby hotel.

“I was inside when the demonstrators stormed in. I was put in a secure place by security people of the parliament,” said Ablasse Ouedraogo, an opposition lawmaker, who has since left the building. “Now it is difficult to say what happens next but things are out of control because the demonstrators do not listen to anyone.”

Houses of ministers were also attacked, and people were looting shops in Bobo Dioulasso, the country’s second-largest city, witnesses said.

Earlier, police 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 and making a reputation for himself as a regional meddler, Compaore has refashioned himself as an elder statesman who brokered electoral disputes and hostage releases.

He made no secret of his support for Charles Taylor, the Liberian warlord turned president, and has also been accused of supporting rebel groups in Ivory Coast and Angola. But 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 the Tuareg rebels who invaded the country’s north, leading to the agreement which made the July 2013 presidential election possible.

Burkina Faso remains one of the world’s poorest and was in the bottom 10 on the most recent Human Development Index.