Gunfire Rattles Burkina Faso’s Capital as Soldiers Revolt

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Gunfire erupted inside several military bases across this conflict-hit West African country early Sunday as part of an apparent mutiny led by soldiers demanding sweeping changes to the government’s faltering campaign against Islamist militants.

The firing started just before dawn at the bases in the capital, Ouagadougou, and in at least one other city. Hours later the firing had subsided and the government issued a statement denying rumors that a coup was underway, and insisted it was fully in control.

Even so, soldiers appeared to have control of several military bases and the government’s authority was badly shaken. Riot police officers fired tear gas in central Ouagadougou to prevent young protesters, also angered by government failures, from reaching a traditional protest site in the city center. Mobile internet services were shut down.

Appearing on state television, Defense Minister Barthélémy Simporé said that the unrest was confined to “a few barracks” and that the government had reached out to the mutinying soldiers to find out their demands.

The mutiny comes a few months after President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré changed the military leadership in what analysts saw as an attempt to quell opposition inside the armed forces. Earlier this month the government arrested a dozen soldiers on suspicion of conspiring against the government.

The United States Embassy in Burkina Faso reported gunfire at five military bases in the capital and in the northern towns of Kaya and Ouahigouya.

The unrest also coincides with a broader violent upheaval and precipitous democratic backsliding in the region.

Public anger has been rising in Burkina Faso for months at President Kaboré’s failure to stem attacks from Islamist and other armed groups across broad areas of the east, west and north of the country.

“This is, sadly, totally predictable,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This is what happens when rule of law and transparency is weak. The situation is all the more precarious given the template for coups in the region.”

Over 100 people were killed in an Islamist attack on a village in northern Burkina Faso in June, one of the deadliest in the region for years. On Sunday President Emmanuel Macron of France announced the death of a French soldier during a mortar attack on a camp in Gao, Mali.

There has been a surge in military coups across sub-Saharan Africa over the past year, with military takeovers in Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan. In November, the United Nations special envoy to West Africa warned against any military takeover in Burkina Faso.

The upheaval coincides with the much-anticipated trial of 14 people for the 1987 overthrow of President Thomas Sankara, a young leader of Burkina Faso whose progressive ideals inspired many Africans. Mr. Sankara’s violent death during the coup, led by a former friend, cast a decades-long shadow across the country.

The upheaval started early Sunday when sustained gunfire erupted before dawn inside the Sangoulé Lamizana camp in central Ouagadougou, which houses a prison whose inmates include soldiers involved in a failed 2015 coup attempt.

Video circulated by residents showed bursts of tracer gunfire shooting over the city. Hours later, an unidentified group of soldiers appeared to have seized control of the camp.

Speaking to reporters gathered outside the camp, one officer gave a list of demands including the replacement of Burkina Faso’s army chief and intelligence chief, greater resources for the military campaign against Islamist militants and improved medical care for soldiers wounded in the fight.

Unrest is rising in the streets. Young protesters calling for the government’s ouster clashed with the riot police in November, reflecting public anger over the Islamist militancy which since 2015 has badly destabilized Burkina Faso, until recently a poor but largely quiet West African country.

The government had tried to prevent another round of protests that took place on Saturday. Several hundred young people, some throwing stones, clashed with police officers, who responded with tear gas. A journalist was injured in the unrest.

Open support for the government’s ouster is evident on the streets of the capital, where a semblance of normalcy persisted on Sunday despite the turmoil.

Amed Ouedrago, a 32-year-old trader, sold national flags on the roadside in advance of a soccer match later that day between Burkina Faso and Gabon in the Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Cameroon.

“We want the military to take over,” said Mr. Ouedrago, as occasional bursts of gunfire could be heard from the nearby Sangoulé Lamizana military base.

Struggling to find takers for his 75-cent flags, the trader said he himself had participated in earlier rounds of protest against the government. “People are frustrated yet the police respond with tear gas,” he said. “Now we are back on the streets again. We want someone new in power.”