Mali’s ousted leader Amadou Toumani Toure, whose whereabouts have been unknown since he was overthrown on March 22, on Wednesday told AFP he was safe in Bamako and not being held by the junta.
The president was chased out of power just five weeks before the end of his time in office ahead of elections on April 29 which have now been suspended by the junta and no fresh poll date fixed.
“I am indeed in Bamako, and thank God my family and I are doing well. What is important to know, is that I am not being held prisoner,” Toure said in a brief telephone conversation.
“I am obviously following what is happening, I wish with all my heart that peace and democracy triumph in Mali. I have nothing else to say for the moment.”
The fate of the 63-year-old Toure has raised concern in the past six days, since renegade soldiers forced him to flee as they fired on the presidency last week in a mutiny which led to a full-blown coup.
The mutineers denounced an “incompetent” government and said they had not been equipped to deal with a Tuareg-led insurrection in the north of the west African nation.
Members of his entourage said Toure was under protection of his elite paratrooper “Red Beret” guard and coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo said he was safe in a secret location, raising concerns he was being detained.
On Tuesday, France announced its ambassador Christian Rouyer had spoken to Toure who “reassured him over his fate.”
As Toure remained in hiding, the country was divided over the coup, with lawmakers and politicians demanding a return to constitutional order while others were sympathetic to the soldiers’ frustrations over the northern crisis.
Several thousand people marched in Bamako on Wednesday brandishing banners reading “Down with ATT”, “Down with France”, and “Down with the international community,” while shouting their support for Sanogo.
The putschists have been shunned by the international community and on Tuesday were suspended by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which followed the footsteps of the African Union.
A delegation of army chiefs arrived in Bamako Wednesday to prepare a venue for a mediation team of six heads of state led by regional strongman Blaise Compaore, president of Burkina Faso, expected to arrive Thursday.
In an interview with French international radio RFI, Burkinabe Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole said ECOWAS leaders were gunning for a transition government led by parliamentary speaker Dioncounda Traore.
West African leaders have warned that the region’s troops were on standby if the junta failed to engage in dialogue.
In mid-January the Tuareg launched a decades-old fight for independence in the north and the soldiers have been no match for the desert warriors who recently returned from Libya, heavily-armed and battle-hardened.
Mali’s military has long been on the back foot coming up against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Tuareg rebels over recent years in the vast desert north, where trafficking of drugs, weapons and western hostages is rife.
“Running on fumes: Mali’s soldiers exposed in the desert,” is the title of a U.S. diplomatic cable published in 2009, revealed on Wikileaks, which outlines how 200 soldiers chasing AQIM elements were stranded for a week without gas and supplies.
“Soldiers posted to duty in the desert north are sent to either Gao, Kidal, or Tessalit for three to six month tours without any training to introduce them to fighting - or surviving - in the harsh desert terrain.”
These are the northern towns that have come under attack in the fresh offensive which has also seen more than 200,000 people flee their homes.
During the last rebellion “some Malian soldiers were placed on duty in the north never even having fired a weapon, due to lack of resources, notably ammunition, during training,” read the dispatch.
The putschists on Tuesday announced a new constitution that rules its members out of upcoming elections, lifted its night-time curfew and reopened the borders in an attempt to show the country was returning to normal.
The European Union, the United States and other Western powers have cut off hundreds of millions of dollars of support to Mali -- except for emergency aid to drought-hit regions of the country suffering food shortages.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay urged Mali to follow the lead of neighboring Senegal, which just wrapped up a peaceful transfer of power.
“Mali also had a good record of democratic elections over the past two decades, and I hope it gets back on that track as soon as possible,” said Pillay.