Ouagadougou - The head of the African Union held urgent talks in Burkina Faso on Monday on the west African country's transition to civilian rule following the ouster of veteran president Blaise Compaore, warning time was running short.
With the military regime that took power after Compaore's exit under heavy international pressure to quickly hand over to a civilian government, delicate negotiations loomed to hammer out a transition plan.
Compaore fled the country last month after measures to change the constitution to extend his 27-year rule sparked mass demonstrations and unrest, with parliament set ablaze.
The army took control, installing Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Zida, the 49-year-old second in command of the presidential guard, as the country's new leader on 1 November.
The United States has called for a democratic transition while France and the European Union have pressed for free elections to be held quickly.
The current AU head, Mauritania's president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who arrived in the country Monday, said "we have come to participate in a solution", but warned that quick action was needed.
"The AU did not come to impose anything on you or to threaten you with anything," said Abdel Aziz, who left the country Monday evening.
"But your main threat is that time is working against you and it is working against our entire organisation."
'Security and social peace'
Abdel Aziz's visit came a day after the opposition and civil society groups agreed on a blueprint for transition that provides for new elections in a year. The deal now has to be negotiated with the military.
The blueprint was handed over to the military on Monday, but a range of sensitive questions must still be resolved, including who will serve as interim president and the allocation of seats in the interim parliament.
After publicly embracing Zida, the AU head went straight into private talks with the soldier in a lounge at Ouagadougou airport.
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No details emerged from their discussion, which preceded talks in the city itself between Abdel Aziz and opposition politicians and leaders of civil society, as well as loyalists who had backed the increasingly unpopular Compaore in office.
Washington welcomed the move towards a transitional government, with US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki expressing the hope that "the process of rebuilding Burkina Faso's democracy may begin".
"We firmly hope that the central mission of the transitional government will be to ensure effective preparation for national elections in November 2015," she said in a statement.
Though Zida's regime rejected a recent ultimatum from the AU to stand down within a fortnight, Abdel Aziz said he wanted "to congratulate" all parties to the succession crisis and urged them to go on working together "in tranquility, security and social peace".
Zida also spoke in positive terms, despite having earlier rebuffed the African Union demand.
"We need the international community, and especially the African Union," he said.
"We re-state our firm commitment to respect for the founding principles" of the African Union, he added. The bloc's charter prevents unconstitutional changes of government.
Negotiations with the army
Compaore first seized power in a 1987 coup that killed his predecessor and former comrade-in-arms Thomas Sankara, a widely popular Marxist and reformer under whom the name of the country was changed from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, meaning "Land of Upright People".
He has found refuge in another former French colony, neighbouring Ivory Coast.
Zida was installed in power by the military at the expense of army chief of staff General Honore Traore. The army soon aligned itself fully behind Zida to oversee a democratic transition.
The opposition and civil society groups now have to negotiate their transition blueprint with the army to lay the groundwork for the nomination of a transitional president and the return of civilian rule.
The current blueprint provides for elections in November 2015, with an interim civilian president, a 25-member government and a transitional parliament with 90 seats.
A major question is who might become the transitional president in the deeply poor, landlocked and cotton-producing nation of some 17 million people, many of whom are subsistence farmers.
On 3 November, the AU pressed the Burkinabe army to return power to civilians within two weeks or face sanctions.
Zida, who insists he has no interest in staying in power, retorted that such a schedule "is really no concern for us. The AU can say 'in three days', but that commits only the African Union."