West’s ally in volatile region is rocked by soldier’s revolt

The Times

Within 24 hours Mali’s stable democracy has reached the brink of civil war, reports Julius Cavendish in Bamako

Mali was on the brink of civil war last night after mutinous soldiers led by a cadre of young officers seized the capital, Bamako, but failed to corner President Touré, who regrouped outside the city with a crack unit of paratroopers.

The renegade soldiers, angered by the Government’s failure to arm them to fight Tuareg rebels, stormed the presidential palace overnight, arresting senior members of the Cabinet.

Some troops fuelled by alcohol then went on a rampage, looting the palace, which bestrides limestone cliffs overlooking the centre of Bamako, and carting off flat-screen televisions, computer monitors and photocopiers.

Styling themselves the National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State, the leaders of the junta appeared on television early yesterday to denounce the President’s incompetence. They promised to “hand power back to a democratically elected president as soon as the country is reunified and its integrity is no longer threatened”.

In the meantime, they said that they were suspending the constitution, dissolving state institutions and closing the country’s borders.

The leader of the group appears to be Captain Amadou Sanogo, an instructor at Mali’s main military garrison. About 20 junior officers, all in fatigues, appeared in the broadcast.

The mutiny began after the Malian Defence Minister visited a garrison on Wednesday and failed to meet their demands for better equipment. It comes after weeks of growing dissatisfaction with Mr Touré’s perceived mishandling of a powerful insurgency launched by ethnic Tuareg separatists in January.

Flush with heavy weapons, including vehicle-mounted rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles smuggled in from Libya, the Tuareg rebels have inflicted heavy casualties and a string of embarrassing setbacks on an army low in confidence.

Mali has long been deemed an important ally by Western powers, who see it as a key partner in the struggle to contain Islamists allied to al-Qaeda at a time when a spate of terrorist attacks has rocked the region. It is also a conduit for cocaine traffickers headed for European markets.

In less than 24 hours, and a month before an election was due, one of the more stable democracies in a volatile region has been rocked. Across Bamako, a growing number of the military, gendarmerie and police switched to the rebels, locking down the capital, firing sporadically and setting up roadblocks.

Shops stayed shuttered and crowds stood uneasily on street corners as they waited for news. A soldier on a bike stopped at a junction, idly unslung his rifle and loosed off three shots before motoring on. Gendarmes commandeered a station wagon and hurtled past, bristling with guns.

Gunfire reverberated through the streets as the mutineers sought to cow the population and establish control. Residents complained of soldiers looting petrol stations.

A policeman riding pillion on a moped flashed a V-sign and shouted: “We’ve won.”

Things are a lot less clear cut than that. The mutiny sparked worldwide condemnation, with calls for Mr Touré to be returned to power and the election to proceed as planned.

France, the former colonial power, which retains close links to Mali, said that it was suspending military assistance and called for the restoration of the constitution.

The US and the EU echoed that call, and the UN Security Council issued a statement demanding that the Government be restored. Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, called for grievances to be settled democratically.

The African Union said that it was “deeply concerned by the reprehensible acts currently being perpetrated by some elements of the Malian Army”.

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