Airport shut as Burkina army encircles coup plotters’ barracks

Ougadougou airport was shut down Tuesday as Burkina troops locked down the area around the barracks of an elite unit behind a short-lived coup after they failed to disarm, raising fears of a new confrontation.

All flights were cancelled and the airport, which is located near the city centre, would remain shut until further notice, an aviation source told AFP.

The news came several hours after the army staged a lockdown in the Ouaga 2000 neighbourhood around the barracks of the presidential guard (RSP) responsible for the September 17 putsch.

Although the unit abandoned its attempted coup last week and was formally dissolved by the cabinet on Friday, the guards have failed to lay down their weapons and remained inside their barracks, prompting a new standoff with the government which has accused them of fomenting fresh trouble.

In a sign of escalating tensions, troops on Tuesday morning deployed all around the barracks with armoured cars and pickup trucks, while soldiers equipped with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades were stationed at several intersections, an AFP correspondent said.

All traffic was banned from the area and Chief of Staff General Pingrenoma Zagre urged residents to steer clear of the neighbourhood “for security reasons”.

It was not immediately clear why the troops had locked down the area although it appeared to be an attempt to exert pressure on the unit’s leader, Gilbert Diendere, a former close ally of ousted strongman Blaise Compaore.

The RSP, which is made up of some 1,300 crack troops and is loyal to Compaore, had detained interim President Michel Kafando and Prime Minister Isaac Zida on September 16.

A day later, they installed Diendere, Compaore’s former chief of staff, as the new leader.

Diendere told AFP he was trying to reason with his men who were refusing to disarm.

“I am playing mediator. The men are determined. We are trying to calm them,” he said.

But following nearly a week of international pressure, the putschists gave up, accepting a peace deal brokered by the ECOWAS west African regional bloc under which the deposed leadership would return, and the coup plotters would stand down with their safety and that of their families guaranteed.

– Former minister arrested –

Also on Tuesday, troops arrested Djibril Bassole, who served as foreign minister under Compoare and had been expected to run in the presidential elections which had been slated to take place on October 11, security sources told AFP.

A security source told AFP the arrest was “in connection with the coup”, with a military source confirming the same information.

“He was arrested at home near the ministry of foreign affairs. It’s in connection with the coup” a military source told AFP. the information was also confirmed by a security source.

He is one of 14 people whose assets were frozen by the courts on Saturday, among them Diendere.

Despite the lockdown, life in the capital had by Tuesday morning regained some sense of normalcy after a call on Saturday for a general strike was suspended.

Even so, the education minister decided to delay the start of the new school year by a week to October 8.

As the political standoff rankled, the government had on Monday accused the RSP of a string of offences including taking soldiers hostage and holding back RSP troops “wanting to join the voice of reason.”

And the chief of staff said the peace deal had hit an “impasse” over the guards’ refusal to “to follow the disarmament by creating incidents and attacking personnel charged with this mission.”

The government has also accused Diendere of seeking to mobilise “foreign troops and jihadists” to help him.

– ‘Safety pledge ignored’ –

A RSP source told AFP that the process of disarming had been held up because a government pledge to ensure the safety of the putschists and their families was not being respected.

The peace deal also called on troops who had converged on Ouagadougou to withdraw 50 kilometres from the city, but they had not, he added.

At least 10 people were killed and more than 100 injured in protests triggered by the coup, which came just weeks before the first elections scheduled to be held since Compaore’s 2014 ouster after 27 years of iron-fisted rule.

The interim government has indicated that polls initially due in October 11 to end the interim administration will likely have to be pushed back several weeks in the wake of the coup chaos.

Diendere acknowledged midweek that the attempted overthrow had been a “mistake” and did not enjoy popular backing.