Angry Malians protest military junta
Bamako - Malians marched in Bamako on Monday to protest against the junta while Tuareg rebels threatened to capture a key northern city, piling political and military pressure on the coup leaders.
More than 1 000 people gathered in front of the stock exchange for a rally organised by a united political front against the soldiers who seized power on March 22, calling the junta a group of "thugs".
"We demand a return to constitutional order," and "Down with the putschists, long live democracy, long live Mali," read banners held up by the protesters who began their rally by singing the national anthem, some raising their fists.
There was little sympathy for the soldiers among men, women and children who see them as a band of hoodlums looting the state when they should be fighting off a Tuareg rebellion in the north.
The march fell on a national holiday celebrating the country's previous coup on March 26 1991 when President Amadou Toumani Toure led a band of soldiers to overthrow the 23-year-old dictatorship of Moussa Traore after a crackdown on a public uprising against the leader.
Having led the country to its first democratic polls a year later, Toure was considered a hero and later democratically elected in 2002. He was due to step down after serving two terms following elections scheduled for April 29.
"In memory of our martyrs, let's fight for these soldiers to return to their barracks," one leader shouted.
Life returned to normal in the capital Bamako where shops re-opened and people ventured out to do their shopping after several tense days following the mutiny in which renegade soldiers shot their way to the presidency.
However last week's coup d'état, roundly condemned at home and by the international community, has suspended all political processes in the west African nation.
Coup a disaster
Fourteen members of government, including the prime minister and foreign minister, launched a hunger strike on Sunday at the military barracks where they are being detained in a small room, forced to sleep three to a mattress.
The International Crisis Group on Monday urged the international community to act quickly, describing military rule as "a disaster for Mali and for all West Africa".
"It is a dramatic regression for one of the region's most advanced countries in terms of the consolidation of electoral democracy and the resolution of conflict through political dialogue.
"Without swift action, those gains will be impossible to win back for years to come," the Brussels-based organisation said, adding that looting carried out by renegade soldiers did not bode well.
The think tank also warned that Tuareg rebels were making swift progress in their drive for independence of in northern Mali which has seen more than 200 000 flee fighting since mid-January.
The junta has claimed that its coup was sparked by the regime's perceived weakness in the face of the Tuareg rebellion.
Their last uprising was resolved in 2009, however many of the Tuareg rebels had gone to fight for Libya's slain dictator Muammar Gaddafi and returned to the region heavily-armed and battle-hardened after his demise last year.
Their lightning strikes on several northern towns have overwhelmed a relatively weak, ill-equipped army.
The junta has suggested peace talks, but the rebels pushed forward on Monday, targeting Kidal, one of the north's most important towns.
On Sunday the army said it had repelled an attack on the city, 1 000km from Bamako.
Armed Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) said Kidal's fall was "imminent".
The group is fighting alongside the Azawad National Liberation Army (MNLA), which has distanced itself from demands for the imposition of Shari'ah law.
The whereabouts of president Toure remain unknown, however the junta has assured is is safe and in good health, without saying whether he has been detained.