A group of junior officers in the West African state of Mali, upset over the conduct of a sporadic guerrilla war in the country’s north, has seized control of the country’s national television station and its presidential palace in an apparent coup attempt.
In an early morning broadcast on Thursday, a spokesman for the group said Mali’s institutions had been “dissolved” and its Constitution suspended. The spokesman, a previously unknown officer identified in news reports as Lt. Amadou Konare, denounced what he called the “incompetence” of the country’s government. Sporadic gunfire rang out in the capital, Bamako, and several ministers were reported to have been arrested.
Mali has not had a coup since 1991 and its government is considered one of the more democratic in a region marked by instability and military takeovers. The coup attempt was all the more unexpected because presidential elections are scheduled for next month and President Amadou Toumani Touré, a former general, long ago announced he would respect the country’s Constitution and not seek another term.
The country has been considered one of the least likely candidates for a coup attempt in all of West Africa. But discontent over Mali’s so-far unsuccessful attempts to stifle a rebellion among nomadic tribesmen in the vast desert north has been brewing for months in the junior ranks of the country’s armed forces.
The tribesmen, Tuareg armed with weapons from the former armories of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, have scored surprising victories against the Malian army, taking several of the small towns near the Algerian border, killing soldiers, and forcing the evacuation of garrisons in their campaign for independence.
Previous uprisings among the Tuareg, drawn from a nomadic group of some 1.5 million people spread across countries of the Sahel region, have been put down. But as this one has dragged on, the protests have multiplied, with officers complaining of a lack of proper weaponry and effective leadership in curbing the rebellion. In recent months there have been marches in the capital, bonfires and barricades.
Wednesday morning, as the country’s defense minister attempted to calm soldiers at a barracks outside Bamako, shots rang out, the minister was shouted down and the coup attempt was launched.
Later, soldiers seized the national broadcaster, and gunfire exchanges followed between mutinous officers and President Touré’s guards.
Early Thursday morning the spokesman for the soldiers announced on state television that a new group, the National Council for the Recovery of Democracy and the Restoration of the State, the CNRDR, had seized power. The president’s whereabouts were not immediately known.
The spokesman insisted that the group was not “in any way aiming at a seizure of power,” and promised a “restoration of democratic order.” He denounced the “incapacity of this regime to manage the crisis” in the country’s north, and its “inefficiency in fighting the terrorists.” The officers, he said, had “decided to take our responsibilities in place of an incompetent regime.”
Lieutenant Konare was quoted in news reports as saying the government had not provided troops with adequate means “to defend the nation” against the northern rebels. He promised that civilian rule would be restored at some stage, news reports said, but added that in the meantime the Constitution would be suspended. The leader of the mutinous troops, identified on state television as Capt. Amadou Sanogo, appeared briefly to announce that a curfew was in force.
Whether power in the country has been definitively seized remained an open question. It was not clear how much beyond the presidential palace and the television the officers’ writ extended, or whether they commanded much support elsewhere in the Malian army.
A leading French specialist on Mali, Pierre Boilley of the Sorbonne, told Radio France Internationale Thursday morning: “It’s not entirely clear that power has been taken.”
The French government, meanwhile, called for elections “as soon as possible” in its former colony. Foreign Minister Alain Juppé told Europe 1 radio that France condemns the mutineers’ actions and “demands the re-establishment of constitutional order, and elections, which were scheduled for April, must take place as soon as possible.”
In a later statement, the French foreign ministry said it was suspending cooperation with Mali except for food aid and joint arrangements to combat terrorism. The statement also urged the plotters not to harm President Touré, who had promised to step down in advance of elections set for April 29.
The Malian leader is a former soldier who overthrew the then president-for-life, Moussa Traore, in 1991 before handing power back to civilians. He came to office in elections in 2002 and was returned to office in 2007.
Earlier the United States had also criticized the takeover. “The situation is currently unclear and unfolding quickly,” a State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said on Wednesday, urging American citizens to stay indoors. “We believe that grievances should be addressed through dialogue, not through violence,” she said.
Apart from the rebellion in the north, Mali has acknowledged in the past that several hundred fighters from Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb have found sanctuary in its desert reaches, although most are believed to be Mauritanians and Algerians.
In recent years, the Qaeda affiliate has left a trail of violence across Mauritania, Niger, Algeria and Mali, taking aim at tourists, expatriate workers, local residents and security forces. Hostages taken in the porous border regions have been executed or ransomed.
- New York Times