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In Burkina Faso, a coup within a coup

The military leaders said their decision was rooted in the failure of Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba to control escalating violence

In this image from video broadcast by RTB state television, coup spokesman Capt. Kiswendsida Farouk Azaria Sorgho reads a statement in a studio in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, on Friday. (AP)

DAKAR, Senegal — First there were reports of gunfire near the presidential palace. Then state television service was briefly cut. By nightfall, a military officer in camouflage was reading an announcement: For the sake of Burkina Faso’s national security, he said, officers had seized power.

The coup d’etat that unfolded Friday in Burkina Faso in many ways mirrored the one just eight months ago, when Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba ousted its democratically elected president, Roch Marc Kaboré, in what the military said was an attempt to “get back on the right track” amid increasing violence. But this time, it was another military leader ousting Damiba — and again blaming the deteriorating security situation.

“It feels like deja vu,” said Constantin Gouvy, a Burkina Faso researcher in Ouagadougou, the country’s capital, with the Clingendael Institute who focuses on conflict in the Sahel. “It was pretty much the same story as in January — except the only difference is that this was a coup-within-a-coup.”

The soldiers who orchestrated the takeover on Friday — led by Capt. Ibrahim Traoré — said in a statement broadcast on local television that Damiba had begun to focus more on politics than on addressing the security issues that drove the January coup. Since Islamist extremists gained a foothold in the West African nation seven years ago, thousands have been killed and nearly 1 in 10 people have been displaced by violence.

Last year, Burkina Faso became the epicenter of the growing security crisis in the Sahel, with its death toll from insurgent attacks surpassing that in Mali. Violence only intensified after Damiba took power, including an attack that left 79 civilians dead over the summer, a bomb that killed 35 last month and an attack on a convoy Monday by Islamist militants that the government said killed 11 soldiers and left 50 civilians missing.

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Gouvy said that frustration within the military about Damiba’s handling of the security situation had been brewing for months, with factions of the army hoping to see Damiba employ new counteroffensive strategies and create new alliances with international partners — especially Russia, whose help governments in West Africa have increasingly sought. At demonstrations in support of the coup Friday, some young men came carrying Russian flags.

On Saturday, the military faction supporting Traoré accused Damiba of taking refuge at a French military base and organizing a counterattack — which the French Embassy denied. Protesters bashed windows and lit fires outside the French Embassy in Ouagadougou, according to videos on social media.

The French Embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did a spokesman for Damiba’s government. His location was not known as of Saturday night.

Burkina Faso is the most recent country in the region to experience a coup, following Mali, Chad, Guinea and Sudan. The heads of the Economic Community of West African States, a 15-nation bloc known as ECOWAS, condemned the coup in a statement Friday, reiterating the importance of a transition to civilian rule. The U.S. State Department said in a statement that it is “deeply concerned” by events in Burkina Faso and will be “closely monitoring this fluid situation.”

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Rinaldo Depagne, the West Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, said he was struck by the apparent ease with which the soldiers ousted Damiba.

“If there was a second coup, why not a third?” he said. “It’s a sign of the extreme fragility of the Burkinabe state.”

In Ouagadougou, Honorine Ouedraogo woke up early on the morning of the coup to go to church. When another woman on the street warned her there might be trouble, Ouedraogo said she ignored her — she was tired of all the rumors of coups that had been swirling and was determined to make it to early morning prayer.

By the time she left the Catholic church, roads were blocked and state television had been cut off.

“It’s an eternal restart,” said Ouedraogo, 40, who said she had never seen or heard of Traoré but had been disappointed with Damiba’s failure to gain control of the violence.

Tenkodogo Isma, who runs a market in the capital, said he supported the coup because it was clear that Damiba — despite his claims to be better than Kaboré — could not manage the growing insecurity.

“We don’t want someone we like, but rather someone who can manage and calm the jihadist situation in Burkina,” he said, adding that much about Traoré and his intentions are still uncertain.

“We just want the country to be at peace again,” he said, “to stand together and help each other.”

Daniel Gnienhoun in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, contributed to this report.