, BAMAKO, Mar 22 – Mali coup leaders on Thursday ordered borders closed after taking over key buildings in the capital and ousting President Amadou Toumani Toure, sparking international concern and condemnation.
The band of mutineers – who call themselves the National Committee for the Establishment of Democracy – said their move was prompted by the government’s “inability” to put down a Tuareg-led insurrection in the north.
Sporadic gunfire rang out in the capital throughout Thursday as condemnation poured in from Western powers and the African Union urged “the mutineers immediately to put an end” to Mali’s first coup in 21 years.
France suspended cooperation with its former colony, urging soldiers not to harm Toure who was at a military camp under protection from his elite paratrooper guard.
It remained unclear how tight the junta’s grip on power was.
Washington, which has repeatedly voiced fears that parts of Mali and neighbouring countries were becoming a safe haven for jihadi extremists, called “for the immediate restoration of constitutional rule.”
Medical and military sources said at least one rebel soldier had died and some 40 people had been wounded in the coup.
Mali is usually seen as politically stable, but smouldering troubles in the north where Tuareg tribes have long felt ignored by a southern government and Al-Qaeda has taken deep root have turned the region into a tinderbox.
This was ignited when the demise of Muammar Gaddafi sparked the return of hundreds of heavily-armed Tuareg who had fought for him in Libya and were ready to take up a decades-long struggle for independence.
What began as a mutiny over the government’s response to the rekindled Tuareg insurrection, Wednesday afternoon turned into a full-blown coup as soldiers seized control of the presidential palace and state broadcaster.
A few dozen soldiers appeared on the screens after hours of music videos had played in a loop. They appeared to be largely rank-and-file green-beret soldiers, with only two officers present.
“It’s pretty notable that so far there have been no senior military officials that have come out” in support of the coup, said Todd Moss of the Washington-based Center for Global Development, a former US deputy assistant secretary of state for West Africa.
Speaking to AFP in Dakar by telephone, he said the coup was likely to “complicate matters further” in Mali’s troubled north and pushed a possible truce with rebel Tuareg further off the table.
Junta spokesman Lieutenant Amadou Konare said the takeover was a result of a “lack of adequate (military) material to defend the nation”.
Claiming to represent the defence forces, he said the junta “solemnly commits to restore power to a democratically-elected president as soon as national unity and territorial integrity are re-established.”
The man presented as their leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, declared a national curfew as the putschists announced all borders had been closed “until further notice”.
They also ordered all civil servants back to work from next Tuesday and said ministerial secretaries should keep government ticking over.
Renegade soldiers in the northeastern city of Gao also detained their military chiefs to support the coup.
Malians were saddened by the blow to democracy a day after wild shooting by mutineering soldiers sowed panic in Bamako.
“We are worried for the future of our democracy. I am against this coup d’etat. We need a return to constitutional order,” said one citizen, Moussa Kante.
Toure was initially holed up in the palace as shots were traded outside but he managed to flee the premises.
“The president is in Bamako, he is not at an embassy. He is in a military camp where he is in command,” a military source said on condition of anonymity, adding the elite “Red Beret” paratroopers were keeping watch.
The president is himself a former paratrooper who led the ouster of ‘president-for-life’ Moussa Traore in 1991 before handing power to civilians. He 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 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 Gaddafi 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.
The fighting has seen up to 200,000 flee their homes, compounding a humanitarian disaster at a time of drought and food shortages.
Mali has become a new frontline in Africa, and Western powers – concerned that the troubled north 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. Nigeria and South Africa also condemned the coup.