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Amid gunfire, military in Burkina Faso announces coup

The Burkinabe military took charge of the country less than a month before October elections were scheduled.

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Members of the presidential guard look for protesters in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, September 17, 2015. Leaders of a coup in Burkina Faso have named Gilbert Diendere, a general in the elite presidential guard, to head a transitional council, the soldiers said in a statement broadcast on state-run television on Thursday.

Joe Penney/Reuters

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While gunfire rang out in the streets, Burkina Faso's military took to the airwaves Thursday to declare it now controls the West African country in a coup mounted weeks before elections.

A former aide to ex-President Blaise Compaore, who was ousted in a popular uprising last year, was named the new head of state. In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, the general said the scheduled Oct. 11 election date was too soon.

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At least one person was killed when the presidential guard opened fire with live ammunition to disperse crowds protesting the coup, witnesses said. Several others were treated for gunshot wounds, according to a worker at the main hospital in the capital, Ouagadougou.

Burkina Faso's land and air borders were closed and a 7 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew was imposed. The coup — the country's sixth coup since it won independence from France in 1960 — unfolded overnight with stunning speed. Late Wednesday, the country's interim president and prime minister were arrested at the presidency.

A communique read on state TV and radio early Thursday by an army lieutenant colonel wearing a camouflage uniform and cap criticized the electoral code, which blocked members of Compaore's party from taking part in the Oct. 11 elections. Anyone who supported the ex-president's bid to amend the constitution so he could seek another term was also banned from running.

The coup leaders later announced that Gen. Gilbert Diendere, who had been head of the elite presidential guard under Compaore and was his longtime aide, was now in charge.

In the AP interview, Diendere also criticized the electoral code that barred Compaore's supporters from taking place. He vowed that elections would go forward but not on the timeframe that was set to end a transition after Compaore was ousted late last year after 27 years in power.

"Today it seems to me that the Oct. 11 date is too soon to hold the election," Diendere said. "It's not at our level to speak of Compaore's return. We want to stabilize the country and hold elections."

Compaore and his family initially fled to Ivory Coast but his whereabouts on Thursday were unknown.

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Diendere is among African soldiers who have taken part in the US-led Flintlock military exercise. The exercise is held each year to improve African militaries' counter-terrorism efforts. Photos posted in 2010 by the US military's Africa Command showed Diendere, wearing a red beret, addressing Burkinabe soldiers before their deployment to Mali in support of that year's Flintlock exercise.

Washington said it is "deeply concerned" about the events unfolding in Burkina Faso.

"The United States strongly condemns any attempt to seize power through extra-constitutional means or resolve internal political disagreements using force," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

Speaking on state TV and radio early Thursday before a blue background, Lt. Col. Mamadou Bamba said the country's transitional government was dissolved and the interim president was no longer in power. He announced the beginning of a "coherent, fair and equitable process" that would lead to inclusive elections.

Burkina Faso hosts French special forces and serves as an important ally of both France and the United States in the fight against Islamic militants in West Africa. While Burkina Faso has largely been spared from extremist violence, a Romanian national was abducted in April, and a Mali-based jihadi group claimed responsibility.