OUAGADOUGOU - Burkina Faso's armed forces converged on Monday on the capital Ouagadougou to disarm the elite presidential guard, which staged a coup against the government last week, setting the stage for a showdown as night fell over the city.
Burkina Faso had been heading to polls on Oct. 11 meant to restore democracy after last year's overthrow of longtime leader Blaise Compaore when the 1,200-member unit took the interim president and several cabinet ministers hostage on Wednesday.
Witnesses in the towns of Dedougou, Fada N'Gourma, Kaya, Ouahigouya, Koudougou and the second-largest city, Bobo-Dioulasso saw soldiers heading towards Ouagadougou aboard tanks, and pick-ups in the early afternoon, cheered on by residents.
Troops were later spotted within striking distance of the capital.
"I saw the second column leave Bobo-Dioulasso. People came out to accompany the soldiers to the edge of town. I've never seen anything like it," said resident Moussa Traore.
A statement signed by several military chiefs said the regular armed forces were seeking the surrender of the presidential guard, known as the RSP, "without bloodshed".
"We ask them to immediately lay down their arms and go to Camp Sangoule Lamizana," read the statement, referring to a barracks in Ouagadougou. "They and their families will be protected."
Coup leader General Gilbert Diendere, Compaore's former spy chief and right-hand man, reacted in a statement, warning against what he said was the risk of "chaos, civil war, and massive human rights violations".
He said he would free Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida as a sign of goodwill to mediators from the ECOWAS regional bloc, and pledged to hand over power to the transitional government once they had reached a definitive agreement.
As he held out on Monday, Diendere received a stern warning from Francois Hollande, president of Burkina's former colonial ruler France.
In a statement released by the French presidency, Hollande called upon the coup participants to immediately lay down their weapons and hand power over to legitimate authorities "or assume all of the consequences".
He also announced the suspension of financial and military aid to Ouagadougou until the transitional government was restored.
France's position was echoed by the heads of state of neighbouring Niger and Chad, who called upon the presidential guard to disarm and return to barracks.
Soldiers from the presidential guard were largely absent from Ouagadougou's streets for the first time since Wednesday's coup, and as night fell hundreds of people defied a nighttime curfew put in place by the coup leaders last week.
It was not immediately clear where Diendere was late on Monday. But rumours that he was preparing to step down at the residence of the Mogo Naaba, the traditional leader of the Mossi people, attracted a jubilant crowd of at least a thousand people onto the street outside.
"The homeland or death! We will be victorious!" they chanted.
However, despite Diendere's rapidly weakening position, analysts warned against declaring a premature victory over the coup leaders.
"The presidential guard has most of the weapons, but the army has the numbers," said Cynthia Ohayon, West Africa analyst with conflict resolution think tank, the International Crisis Group. "This could really end in a bloodbath."
France warned its residents in the country to stay indoors. Last week at least 10 people were killed amid street clashes, most from bullet wounds.
Mediators from the West African bloc ECOWAS had on Sunday announced a draft agreement aimed at ending the crisis that was to be presented to regional heads of state at a summit in Nigeria on Tuesday.
However, the ECOWAS proposal, which included an amnesty for the coup leaders, was swiftly rejected by civil society and opposition politicians, who said they had not been informed of the document's contents before they were announced.
And in his first public statement since he was ousted, interim president Michel Kafando also rejected the proposal.
Kafando said he remained under house arrest and told French RFI radio: "I was not associated with the negotiations at Hotel Laico ... It does not take into account the interests of the Burkinabe people."
Demonstrators protesting against the ECOWAS deal erected barricades and burned tyres in several neighbourhoods across Ouagadougou throughout the day on Monday, and large protests also took place in several other towns.
As most of the capital's residents abandoned the streets and sought refuge at home upon hearing news of the approaching troops, young men opposed to the coup remained at improvised roadblocks waiting for the soldiers' arrival.
"We don't agree with what ECOWAS decided," said protester Ahmed Zio in the Zone One neighbourhood. "We don't want an amnesty for the general and his putschists. They are terrorists. We don't want to hear about the RSP any more."