OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) -- The president of Burkina Faso stepped down Friday after protesters stormed parliament and set the building ablaze, ending his 27-year reign and sparking a struggle in the military for control of the West African country.
An army general quickly announced he was filling the vacuum left by departing President Blaise Compaore, but hours later, a colonel made the same declaration.
Col. Yacouba Zida said that he would lead the transition back to democracy in a recorded address posted early Saturday on the website of a national television station.
“While we wait to define in a consensual manner, with all of the political parties and civil society organizations, the contours and composition of this peaceful democratic transition, I will henceforth assume, from today, the responsibilities of the head of this transition and the head of state,” he said.
There were signs late Friday that Zida was making a bid for power when he announced that the country’s borders had been closed, a transitional committee had been set up and the constitution had been suspended.
But earlier in the day, Gen. Honore Traore, the joint chief of staff, had told a packed room of reporters that he would assume the presidency until elections were called. It was not immediately clear if Traore accepted Zida’s announcement Saturday.
When he resigned, Compaore had said a vote would be held in 90 days, but Zida said the “length and makeup of the transitional body will be decided later.”
Over the course of several dramatic hours, Compaore went from looking likely to jam through parliament a bill that would let him seek a fifth term to agreeing to step down next year to abandoning office immediately.
The quick succession of events took many by surprise, since Compaore had long out-maneuvered his adversaries and has in recent years become an important regional mediator. 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.
But French President Francois Hollande was quick to “salute” his decision to resign.
Jen Psaki, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, called for democratic elections.
“We condemn any attempts by the military or other parties to take advantage of the situation for unconstitutional gain and call on all parties to respect the people’s support for the democratic process,” she said in a statement released late Friday.
While he was respected on the international stage, critics noted that, under Compaore’s semi-authoritarian rule, the country of 18 million people remained mired in poverty. The landlocked country’s fortunes rise and fall with gold and cotton prices—and adequate rain in a region plagued by drought.
Compaore’s exit will have significance throughout the region, where many leaders have pushed through constitutional changes to prolong their rule and others are attempting to, said Africa expert Philippe Hugon.
“It’s obvious that what happened will have an echo in other countries,” said Hugon of the Institute for Strategic and International Relations.
In the end, Compaore was pushed from power by violent protests and an emboldened opposition that would accept nothing short of his resignation.
“I declare that I’m leaving power,” Compaore said in a statement. “For my part, I think I have fulfilled my duty.”
Thousands of opposition protesters gathered Friday in a square in the capital and burst into cheers when they heard the announcement of his resignation on hand-held radios.
“This is a new revolution” and a chance to get it right, said Donald Fayama, a shopkeeper who was among the demonstrators. “At least tomorrow, we are not going to wake up with the same face of the same president.”
Compaore, 63, was headed south to the city of Po, near the border with Ghana, a French diplomatic official said on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the situation.
The outgoing president was still in Burkina Faso on Friday afternoon, and it was not clear if he was trying to cross the border, the official said. He had not asked the French, who were once the country’s colonial rulers, for any help.
For months, an opposition coalition had been urging Compaore not to seek re-election. But Compaore and his ruling party appeared ready on Thursday to push through a bill that would have allowed him to run again.
Determined to block the vote, protesters stormed the building, setting part of it on fire. At least three people were killed in the protests, according to Amnesty International, and dozens of demonstrators were shot.
Images of flames enveloping the legislature, cars burning in the streets and protesters massing in the capital raised the specter of a long standoff. But events moved swiftly, with the government suspending the vote and the military announcing that the legislature had been dissolved and an interim government would be formed.
After that, Compaore said he would lead until the new elections.
Protesters rejected that plan and gathered again Friday, demanding that Compaore step down immediately.
It was a sharp about-face for a ruler who had survived other attempts to overthrow his regime.
Compaore first came to power following the October 1987 coup against then-President Thomas Sankara, Compaore’s longtime friend and political ally who was killed in the power grab.
For many, his legacy begins and ends with the death of Sankara, a well-regarded statesman whose death was widely viewed as a setback for the entire continent.
Compaore has reinvented himself many times over the years. As a young man, he was in the military. He became justice minister when troops marched on Ouagadougou, the capital, in 1983 and installed Sankara as president. After he took power in his own coup, he developed a reputation as a meddler and a supporter of regional conflicts.
He openly supported Charles Taylor, the Liberian warlord turned president, though he denied active involvement in the Liberian conflict. Compaore also was accused of supporting rebel groups in Ivory Coast and Angola.
More recently, he has refashioned himself as an elder statesman who brokered electoral disputes and hostage releases throughout West Africa.
Domestically, he kept a tight leash on any opposition, never groomed a viable political heir and fought off threats to his power. In 2011, waves of protests washed over Burkina Faso, challenging Compaore’s rule, and mutinous soldiers occupied the palace at one point, forcing the president to flee.
But what would have spelled the end for many presidents was a temporary problem for Compaore. He maneuvered to stay in power by removing his security chiefs and appointing himself defense minister before returning to Ouagadougou.