Traore readies to take over in Mali

2012-04-12 09:02

Bamako - An interim leader was to take over from Mali's junta on Thursday and head a transition government that must claw back control of half the country from the hands of Islamists and Tuareg rebels.

Dioncounda Traore, the legislative speaker, was to be sworn in as interim head of state on Thursday at 09:00 GMT in the poor, landlocked state plunged into chaos after a band of army mutineers staged a coup on March 22.

Meanwhile, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, who has been mediating the crisis, is to meet in Ouagadougou with the junta and political leaders to plan the transition back to civilian rule, his foreign minister, Djibrill Bassole, said on Wednesday.

"The President of Burkina Faso will this weekend meet here with the forces active in the Malian nation, notably the political class," and the junta "to clearly plan the means of transition", Bassole said.

The coup was led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, who overthrew president Amadou Toumani Toure, accusing him of ineptitude in handling the Tuareg rebellion in the desert north.

The coup drew international condemnation and a broad aid freeze and sanctions from west African regional group Ecowas, which forced the junta to agree to handover power.

Amid the political wrangling in the south, the Tuareg - many of them heavily-armed and battle-hardened from last year's Libya war - stepped up their long-simmering separatist campaign in the north.

Joined by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda's north Africa branch, they made dramatic gains, taking over an area the size of France including the legendary caravan town of Timbuktu in recent weeks.

Major humanitarian disaster

The vast area is now in the hands of the Tuaregs' Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), armed Islamist group Ansar Dine, as well as arms and drug traffickers.

The European Commission warned that northern Mali could face a "major humanitarian disaster" unless access is given for food and medicine.

The crisis could also "spill over to neighbouring countries", the European Union's executive arm said in a statement and offered an additional $11.8m in humanitarian aid to the region.

Aid groups have also warned of a humanitarian crisis and abuses against civilians in the lawless area, hit by drought and acute food shortages, where more than 200 000 people have been displaced by the fighting this year.

Seven Algerian diplomats, including the consul in the city of Gao, were being held hostage by a splinter group of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

Witnesses have also reported the presence of about 100 members of the Nigerian extremist Islamist sect Boko Haram in Gao.

Ansar's Dine, led by charismatic former Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, has reportedly imposed Islamic sharia law in areas under his control.

The UN Security Council on Monday expressed deep concern at the growing "terrorist threat" in Mali.

Ecowas has raised the prospect of sending a force of up to 3 000 men to try to reclaim northern Mali, but security sources say the bloc must first clearly define the mission's mandate.

New interim government

West African foreign and defence ministers were to meet in Ivory Coast on Thursday to discuss an earlier proposal from the region's army chiefs regarding a Mali intervention.

In the capital Bamako, Traore has been putting together a new interim government of "national unity", expected to have about 20 members, but the identity of his prime minister remained a mystery.

The military may remain in charge of security and defence, said sources close to the mediation team of Ecowas, the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States.

Ecowas has obtained from the junta "an agreement in principle" to release nine members of the former regime arrested during the coup, including at least five ministers, perhaps as early as Thursday, Ivory Coast's minister for African integration, Adama Bictogo, told AFP.

Several hundred people held a demonstration on Wednesday in Bamako in support of the outgoing military junta, to shouts of "long live the Mali army, down with the traitors".

Another rally of 2 000 people protested against the division of Mali.

In northern Mali, much of which has been overrun by Tuareg rebels and their Islamist extremist allies, the rebels said they had summoned a group of religious leaders with a view to release "a large number" of Malian soldiers captured during recent fighting.