Mali president ‘safe’ after fleeing from overnight rebel coup

Mutineering soldiers attacked Mali's presidential palace on Wednesday night to protest President Amadou Toumani Toure’s handling of a nomad-led rebellion in the north. (Reuters)

Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was forced to flee his palace during an overnight coup, is unharmed and in a safe location, a loyalist military source told AFP news agency on Thursday.

“The president is in good health and in a safe location,” the official said on condition of anonymity, without elaborating on Toure’s whereabouts.

He said that the interior and defense ministers were also safe.

“The situation is evolving rapidly. We are trying to see who is behind all this.”

Toure, who has served two terms, was to step down after a presidential election scheduled for April 29.

The Malian official reacted angrily at French Minister Alain Juppe’s call for polls to be held as soon as possible.

“In situations such as these, you don’t call for early elections. The first thing you should ask for is the restoration of constitutional order,” he said, arguing the former colonial power was de facto condoning the coup.

Renegade Malian soldiers had appeared on state television on Thursday to declare they had seized power and would look to hand over to a new, democratically elected government.

“The CNRDR ... has decided to assume its responsibilities by putting an end to the incompetent regime of Amadou Toumani Toure,” Amadou Konare, spokesman for the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR) said, accusing Toure’s government of failing to end rebellion in the north.

The soldiers said they had seized the presidential palace and arrested several ministers after a gunbattle, in an apparent coup bid in the west African nation.

“We are in control of the presidential palace,” one of the rebels told AFP on condition of anonymity. He said Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga was among those held by the officers.

Heavy weapons and tracer fire rang out around the palace in the capital Bamako and the mutineers, who complain they lack arms and resources to face a separatist insurgency in the Sahara, forced the state broadcaster off the air.

“We now know it is a coup d’etat that they are attempting,” a defense ministry official said, asking not to be named.

The official said Toure, who has long said he will relinquish power after elections scheduled next month, was in a secure location but gave no more details.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called in a statement for calm and for grievances to be settled democratically.

Programs on state television were interrupted after the mutinous soldiers blocked access routes to it. It was not clear to what extent they were in control of the building when it came back on air late on Wednesday.

“In a moment, there will be a statement by the military,” read a brief message, displayed against a backdrop of traditional Malian music and dance.

Anger has grown in the army at the handling of a Tuareg-led rebellion that has killed dozens, forced some 200,000 civilians to flee their homes and exposed Bamako’s lack of control over the northern half of a country twice the size of France.

Meanwhile, the government has not disclosed how many soldiers have been killed, but the toll has been significant. In February, military widows led a protest. In an attempt to diffuse tension, the Malian president allowed himself to be filmed meeting the widows, who publicly grilled him on his handling of the rebellion.

In a sign of spreading support for the mutiny, two military sources in the northern town of Gao confirmed the arrests of several senior officers in the town, a regional operations center.

Wider frustrations

The Tuareg uprising that began in mid-January is being fueled by arms leftover from the civil war in neighboring Libya. Tens of thousands of people have fled the north, and refugees have spilled over into four of the countries neighboring Mali due to the uprising.

Soldiers have for weeks appealed to the government for better weapons to fight the rebels. But many mutineers said they now wanted to oust Toure himself.

“He needs to leave power, that is all. The movement will only stop with the taking of the palace,” said one sergeant, who asked not to be named. Other soldiers toured Bamako shouting anti-Toure slogans.

There was no word from Mali’s presidency. Statements posted by its official Twitter handle earlier in the day said there was no coup attempt.

“These people are tapping into frustrations of the population,” said one Bamako-based diplomat of the mutiny. Bamako residents reported cases of the military requisitioning vehicles in the streets.

Bamako was briefly paralyzed last month as hundreds of Malians put up street barricades and burned tyres in the streets to protest at the government's handling of the rebellion.

The situation in Mali was raised during consultations at the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said, adding that Council members appealed for calm and “respect for the constitutional order.”

Toure, in power since 2002, has said he is planning after April elections to hand over the reins of a country known for its gold, cotton and a once-flourishing desert tourist industry now undermined by a spate of hostage-takings by Qaeda allies.

The former paratroop commander overthrew a dictatorship in a 1991 coup and relinquished power a year later before returning to office via the ballot box.

A military source said a trigger for Wednesday’s events was a visit by the defense minister to a barracks in the town of Kati about 20 km (13 miles) north of Bamako.

“The minister went to speak to troops but the talks went badly and people were complaining about the handling of the crisis in the north,” the source said.

A defense ministry official who was at the meeting said a soldier accused the defense minister of betraying them by not giving them means to fight the rebels. Soldiers then began throwing rocks at the minister before taking weapons from the armory and shooting in the air.

Tuareg fighters seeking to carve out a desert homeland in Mali's north have made advances in recent weeks, including the seizure this month of the key garrison town of Tessalit by the Algerian border.

The MNLA rebel movement has been bolstered by heavily armed Malian Tuareg returning from fighting with Libyan forces who tried in vain to prevent Muammar Gaddafi's overthrow last year.

The clashes have added a new layer of insecurity to a zone awash with smugglers and plagued by fighters linked to Qaeda and is expected to complicate presidential elections in April.

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