By Serge Daniel
Bamako, March 22, 2012 (AFP)
Renegade Mali soldiers shot their way to the presidency and forced the head of state to flee Thursday, claiming on television to have ousted an “incompetent regime” and dissolved state institutions.
The putschists, calling themselves the National Committee for the Establishment of Democracy, said they had acted due to government’s “inability” to put down a Tuareg-led insurrection in the north.
Mali had been seen as relatively stable but the demise of Moamer Kadhafi turned the country into a tinderbox, flooding the region with weapons and sparking the return of former Tuareg rebels who had fought for him in Libya.
Foreign powers voiced great concern over President Amadou Toumani Toure’s ouster and appealed for calm. France said that a presidential poll that had been due for April 29 should be held as early as possible.
A group of a few dozen soldiers appeared on state television at about 04:45 GMT after a few false starts battling to get audio equipment working and hours of music videos playing after seizing the broadcaster in Bamako.
The group’s spokesman, identified on-screen as Lieutenant Amadou Konare said the takeover was a result of a “lack of adequate material to defend the nation”.
Claiming to represent the nation’s defence forces, Konare said the junta “solemnly commits to restore power to a democratically-elected president as soon as national unity and territorial integrity are re-established.”
Since January, Al Qaeda’s north African branch upped its attacks on Mali government troops and kidnappings of foreigners while Tuareg rebels launched their largest offensive in years in the impoverished landlocked country’s north.
The leader of the junta was revealed to be one Captain Amadou Sanogo, who appeared briefly to announce the imposition of a national curfew.
The appearance on television came shortly after the mutinous soldiers seized the presidential palace and arrested several ministers, including Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga and Interior Minister Kafouhouna Kone.
“We are in control of the presidential palace,” one of the rebels told AFP.
Toure was initially holed up in the palace as shots were traded outside but he managed to flee the premises. Loyalist officials told AFP the ousted president was unharmed and had been moved to safe location.
Witnesses reported heavy gunfire and the use of tracer bullets, while one noted flames coming from the southern side of the palace, perched on a hill overlooking Bamako.
Elite paratroopers known as the “Red Berets” attempted to fight back but the renegade soldiers claimed the upper hand.
Toure, who has served two terms, was not a candidate in next month’s polls.
The president is himself a former soldier who led the ouster of president-for-life Moussa Traore in 1991 before handing power to civilians. He later won an election in 2002 and was re-elected in 2007.
Under his leadership Mali — which has battled successive Tuareg rebellions since independence and more recently Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — has since been hailed as a growing democratic success in the region.
The Tuareg, many of whom fled drought and discontent under a southern government to work and fight for Kadhafi in Libya, returned heavily armed, battle-experienced and jobless after last year’s conflict.
In mid-January they launched a fresh rebellion for independence of what they call Azawad, their stomping ground which makes up the vast desert northern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation.
Anger has grown in recent weeks over the government’s handling of the conflict in which the Tuareg attacks have displaced up to 200,000 civilians.
Wednesday’s turmoil erupted when efforts by Defence Minister Sadio Gassama to ease tensions at a military barracks outside the capital turned sour and soldiers fired shots into the air as they demanded proper weapons with which to face the rebels.
Mali has become a new frontline in Africa and Western powers concerned that the northern triangle of the bow tie-shaped country could become a safe haven for Al Qaeda were quick to call for order to be restored.
“We believe that grievances should be addressed through dialogue, not through violence,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon voiced “deep concern”, as did neighbouring Algeria, Bamako’s main partner in the fight against Al Qaeda.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton condemned the coup and said “constitutional rule should be restored as soon as possible.”
Former colonial power France, which has a military presence in several neighbouring countries, said a fresh election was the urgent next task at hand.
“We ask that the constitutional order be restored, elections, they were scheduled for April, they need to take place as soon as possible,” Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.