Leaders to discuss crisis-hit Mali

2012-05-03 10:30

Bamako - West African leaders were set to discuss the turmoil in crisis-hit Mali at a summit on Thursday after soldiers who overthrew an elected government in March defeated a counter-coup this week.

Gunfire was again heard in the tense capital Bamako on Wednesday, two days after bloody clashes at the state TV and radio station, the airport and the junta troops' headquarters left at least 22 people dead.

Soldiers led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo on 22 March ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure weeks before scheduled elections, triggering chaos and a power vacuum that allowed rebel forces to take over northern Mali.

The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has since mediated a return to interim civilian rule, and the junta handed power to a transitional government in April, although its troops remain highly visible.

Ecowas leaders were due to meet in Senegal's capital Dakar on Thursday to discuss the political crisis in Mali as well as that in coup-hit Guinea-Bissau, just a week after their last heads of state meeting.

Mali's capital has remained tense since the counter-coup launched by members of Toure's presidential guard, many of whom have been arrested.

Hospital officials have told AFP that at least 22 people were killed in fighting between the ex-junta and Toure's loyalists.

Troops on the Sanogo side on Wednesday ordered staff at the state TV and radio station to go home without giving a reason.

Armed elements on the loose

An armoured car fired into the air nearby, sparking panic, with banks closing and civil servants in several ministries fleeing their offices.

Sanogo has blamed the counter-coup on "foreign elements backed by dark forces from inside the country".

Interim Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra said in a televised statement: "We have witnessed an attempt to destabilise the country these last 48 hours, which resulted in a temporary, not yet complete, victory for our army and our security forces.

"There are still some civilian and armed elements on the loose, which justifies the massive presence of our armed and security forces in the city of Bamako."

He said there was "a persistence... in attempts to destabilise the country" but told citizens: "Stay calm, there is no reason to panic."

The United Nations Special Representative for West Africa, Said Djinnit, condemned the latest violence, which he said "could only serve to complicate an already difficult transition".

Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole, whose country has played a key role in negotiations with the coup leaders, said the offensive launched Monday night was an "unfortunate incident."

But it "does not undermine the institutions. The interim president is still in place, the institutions remain in place," he said.

Drug trafficking and kidnappings

Even though the junta is technically no longer in power, it has made its influence felt. Sanogo has rejected an Ecowas offer of a stabilisation force and its call for elections in Mali within 12 months.

Northern Mali remains in the hands of a motley collection of Tuareg separatists and Islamist militant groups.

West African leaders fear that the area - a drought-stricken region, long plagued by arms and drug trafficking and kidnappings - will become a haven for extremists planning attacks across the region.

A delegation from the ex-junta on Wednesday met in Burkina Faso with President Blaise Compaore, the Ecowas mediator for Mali, for talks that were expected to touch on the precarious situation in the north.

One group operating in the lawless area, al-Qaeda splinter group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, on Wednesday told AFP it demanded a total ransom of $59m for two European women aid workers and seven Algerian diplomats it is holding.