The head of Burkina Faso’s armed forces took power on Friday after the country's president announced his resignation, bowing to days of pressure from protesters who demanded his ouster.
President Blaise Compaore, who seized power in a 1987 coup, previously attempted to defy popular demands for him to step down after a day of violent protests on Thursday, in which demonstrators stormed parliament and state television offices. The unrest was touched off by his attempts to prolong a 27-year rule for another term, after he was due to step down this year.
However, with hundreds of thousands of protesters packing the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou, for a second day on Friday and no sign of international support for his staying on, Compaore announced his resignation.
"I declare a vacancy of power with a view to allowing a transition that should end with free and transparent elections in a maximum period of 90 days," he said in a written statement read on local radio and television.
A heavily armed convoy believed to be carrying Compaore was seen traveling on Friday toward the southern town of Po, near the border with Ghana, two diplomatic sources and local media said.
Crowds danced and cheered in Ougadougou's dusty streets, blowing whistles after Compaore's statement was broadcast. The mood cooled, however, as it became plain that military chief Gen. Honore Traore had taken over the reins.
He said he would hold talks with all political parties to create an interim government to take the West African country to democratic elections within a year.
"Considering the urgency of saving the nation, I have decided that I will assume from this day the responsibility of the head of state," Traore told a news conference. "I undertake a solemn engagement to proceed without delay with consultations with all parties in the country so as to start the process of returning to the constitutional order as soon as possible."
But the country’s political opposition was skeptical. Benewende Sankara, a prominent opposition member, said Troare's statement amounted to a military coup.
"For 27 years, Compaore has tricked us. Even now he is trying to fool us and trick the people," he told Radio France Internationale radio prior to Friday's resignation announcement.
On Thursday at least three protesters were shot dead and scores wounded in clashes with government forces. Demonstrators attacked symbols of Compaore's long rule, looted and set fire to parliament and ransacked state television offices.
On Friday no security forces were in sight when demonstrators gathered peacefully at the main Place de la Nation and in front of the army headquarters. Rather than being reassured by Compaore's promise of a democratic transition, many said they were worried the country was headed for a military takeover.
Long a bastion of stability in the turbulent Sahel region, Burkina Faso's crisis is being closely watched by military allies France and the United States and by governments in the region where several longstanding rulers are approaching the end of their mandates amid rumbling of popular discontent.
"This is a sub-Saharan Spring, and it must continue against all the presidents who are trying to hang on to power in Africa," said law student Lucien Trinnou, referring to the Arab Spring that toppled several long-term leaders.
French President François Hollande, who had discreetly sought ways to usher Compaore into an international role when his term was due to end next year, welcomed the former president's resignation in a statement and called for quick elections to be held.
The U.S. issued a similar statement praising Compaore's resignation.
Burkina Faso is one of the world's poorest nations but has positioned itself as a mediator in regional crises. It is also a key ally in Western operations against Al-Qaeda-linked groups in West Africa.
The West African bloc ECOWAS said on Thursday it would not accept any party's seizing power through nonconstitutional means, in an apparent suggestion of diplomatic pressure to leave Compaore in place.
A delegation from the African Union, the United Nations and ECOWAS was due in Burkina Faso on Friday to hold talks with all parties.
Al Jazeera and wire services