The Economist

A coup in Mali

AS THOUSANDS of inhabitants of Mali’s normally sleepy capital, Bamako, flooded south over the Bridge of Martyrs to the comparative safety of the River Niger’s right bank on Wednesday afternoon, a man in a flowing robe and skull cap cut a stubborn figure as he walked the other way. “This is how civil wars start,” he said after a Kalashnikov round whipped overhead.

Civil strife is looking considerably more likely in Mali since renegade soldiers, gendarmes (paramilitary police) and police seized control of Bamako. They have so far failed to capture President Amadou Toumani Touré. Mali’s leader is reported to be holed up at an army barracks outside town, under the protection of a crack team of “Red Beret” paratroopers who have remained loyal to him.

The spark for the mutiny came during a visit to Bamako’s main barracks by Mali’s defence minister. For weeks, discontent has been building as ethnic Tuareg rebels—flush with heavy weaponry stolen from Libya, and better organised than at any time in the past—have launched a series of attacks, sacking beleaguered garrisons and inflicting heavy casualties on the demoralised Malian army.

When the minister failed to assuage soldiers’ concerns that the government had a grip on the insurgency, troops fired angrily into the air. Hours later they swept into Bamako, stormed the state broadcaster’s offices and laid siege to the presidential palace. A thousand miles to the northeast, junior soldiers placed their superiors under lock and key.

Where things go from here depends on the junta’s leaders and how well they are able to control the soldiers, gendarmes and police who have taken charge of Bamako and who have been firing sporadically to intimidate residents and, in some cases, drunkenly looting the presidential palace.

International condemnation has been swift and has strengthened Mr Touré’s hand. Both France and America both have troops in the region and underwrite the Malian military. With a growing threat from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose members are concentrated in Mali’s northern desert, international partners will be loathe to allow the stand-off to carry on for long. Tuareg rebels are already taking advantage of the confusion, and have overrun an abandoned garrison. It would make tactical sense for them to strike hard at Kidal, a major town, a move that would increase the pressure on Mr Touré and the junta to settle their differences quickly. The Malian president will have to show the very leadership and maneuverability that the mutineers say has been so abundantly lacking to date if he is to defuse the situation.

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