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Burkina coup leader: A key partner for US military in W Africa

Burkina Faso has worked closely with the Pentagon on managing regional conflicts and fighting Islamist terror groups. On Thursday, a transitional government was ousted by a senior military aide to the former president. 

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Smoke rises as Burkina Faso troops, in back, clear debris from a road as people protest in the area against the recent coup in the city of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. Burkina Faso's military on Friday released the country's interim president who was detained during a coup that dissolved his government. The prime minister remained under house arrest.

Theo Renaut/AP

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A military coup in Burkina Faso led by a veteran of US counterterrorism training in the Sahel has put American security partnership with the West African country in the spotlight. 

Gen. Gilbert Diendere, a longtime right-hand man to the former president Blaise Compaore and head of his presidential guard or RSP, seized power from Burkina Faso’s transitional government on Thursday, citing concern about stability because of the exclusion of Mr. Compaore’s supporters from an upcoming election. On Friday, the junta released the country's president, but its prime minister remains in custody. 

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It seemed like Burkina Faso might avoid the chaos and violence that typify power transitions in the region. Last October, Compaore was ousted in a popular uprising after he tried to run for a third term after 27 years in power, and what followed was a smooth handover of power to a civilian transitional government. 

But this week's coup, which comes on the heels of a demand by the National Reconciliation and Reforms Commission to disband Mr. Diendere’s presidential guard, thrusts Burkina Faso into a political crisis ahead of scheduled Oct. 11 elections. 

The US has condemned the coup. “Nearly a year ago, a broad coalition came together in Burkina Faso to reject attempts by the previous president to extend his stay in office illegitimately. They demanded respect for the constitution and the opportunity to change their government through a legitimate process,” National Security Advisor Susan Rice said in a statement today. “These courageous efforts to advance Burkinabe democracy must not be undone."

But the US also has security interests. Burkina Faso serves as a rear base for regional counterterrorism operations and contributes troops to both the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali and the US-led Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, which supports regional militaries fighting terrorist groups in the region. To its north lie Mali, battling an Al Qaeda-linked insurgency that once overran almost half of that country, and Niger, rocked by attacks by the Nigeria-based militant group Boko Haram.

“Because Burkina is in such a strategic location in such a troubled region, we need Burkina to stay a relatively stable country,” says Cynthia Ohayon, a West Africa analyst with International Crisis Group. “That would be one more domino that would fall and that would have repercussions.”

Like nearby Chad and its strongman leader Idriss Deby, the US has come to rely on Burkina Faso as a stabilizing force. And coup leader Diendere has figured prominently in the US partnership, attending military exercises and assisting in hostage negotiations with Islamist groups.

This is what the US will be intent on preserving. Compaore’s ouster did little to disrupt cooperation and this latest twist is unlikely to rock it either, says Maja Bovcon, a senior Africa analyst with Maplecroft, a UK-based risk consulting firm.

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 “The interests of the US and Gilbert Diendere (is) to go back to the normal as soon as possible. I don’t think Gilbert Diendere is willing to cling to power,” Ms. Bovcon says.

She predicts that Diendere will hand over power provided a role is guaranteed for Compaore’s supporters in any future government. Members of the old regime were barred from standing in the election, a reflection of public anger over their past actions. 

Yesterday, speaking to Reuters, Diendere asked the international community to be “understanding” and promised to hold elections, without giving a date. And today's release of the country's transitional president, a former UN ambassador, may point in that direction.

But Ms. Ohayon predicts a prolonged wrangling. 

“[The RSP] will never accept anything short of including their candidate and others will not accept this use of blackmail,” she says. “So long as you don’t have an election, you have a crisis. It’s going to be a transition replacing another transition… and a transition is very fragile.”