OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso: Envoys from the West African bloc ECOWAS were heading to Burkina Faso on Monday after the jihadist-torn Sahel state underwent its second military coup in less than nine months. The streets of the capital Ouagadougou were quiet after a two-day showdown between military rivals jousting for power and a spurt of violent anti-French protests. The country's latest self-proclaimed leader is a 34-year-old captain, Ibrahim Traore, who seized the helm from Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, in power since January.

Religious and community mediators said Damiba on Sunday had agreed to step down, two days after Traore declared he had been forced out. Regional diplomats said he had fled to Togo. ECOWAS-the Economic Community of West African States-issued a statement welcoming "a peaceful settlement of their differences" and announced it would dispatch a delegation to Ouagadougou on Monday.

The team is headed by Guinea-Bissau Foreign Minister Suzi Carla Barbosa and includes former Niger president Mahamadou Issoufou, the bloc's mediator on Burkina Faso. Burkina is struggling with a seven-year-old jihadist campaign that has claimed thousands of lives, forced nearly two million people to flee their homes and left more than a third of the country outside government control.

Anger within the army at failures to roll back the bloody insurgency prompted Damiba's coup against the elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, on January 24. Appointing himself transitional president, Damiba vowed to make security the country's top priority-but after a brief lull, attacks revived, claiming hundreds of lives.

The mounting toll was cited by Traore as justification for the latest coup. Damiba on Sunday set "seven conditions" for stepping down, the religious and community leaders said. These included security guarantees for him and his allies in the military; and that the pledge he had given to ECOWAS for a return to civilian rule within two years be respected.

Speaking on the French radio station RFI on Monday, Traore spelt out that he would uphold the July 2024 timeline for restoring civilian rule. This could even happen "before that date" if conditions were right, Traore said.

He said that he would simply carry out "day-to-day business" until a new civilian or military transitional president was appointed. The appointment would be made by a national forum gathering political and social representatives, the pro-Traore faction in the military said on Sunday.

Traore told RFI that this meeting would take place "well before the end of the year." Analysts said that his position, if maintained, would be likely to satisfy ECOWAS, which has suffered five coups in three of its 15 members since August 2020.

Anti-French protests

Burkina's latest bout of turmoil coincided with a surge of violent protests against France, the former colonial power and ally in Burkina's struggle against the jihadists. Pro-Traore officers accused Damiba of having taken refuge at a French military base in order to plot a "counter-offensive"-charges he and France denied.

On Sunday, security forces fired tear gas from inside the French embassy in Ouagadougou to disperse angry protesters, and the French Institute, which promotes French culture, was also attacked.

The French foreign ministry said the attack was carried out by "hostile demonstrators manipulated by a disinformation campaign against us". Traore on Monday condemned what he called "acts of violence and vandalism" against those buildings and urged "calm and restraint."

Damiba's claimed ouster on Friday was announced just hours after a protest rally that also demanded the end of France's military presence in the Sahel and closer military cooperation with Russia. Some of the protestors carried Russian flags. Russian paramilitaries are supporting regimes in Mali and Central African Republic-sidelining France, those countries' traditional backer.

But Russian troops have also been tarred with accusations of massacres and other abuses. On Monday, the Kremlin spokesman said Russia wanted the situation in Burkina "to normalise as soon as possible, for complete order to be ensured in the country and for a return to the framework of legitimacy as soon as possible." - AFP