BAMAKO, Mali — Drunken soldiers looted Mali's presidential palace hours after they declared a coup Thursday, suspending the constitution and dissolving the institutions of one of the few established democracies in this troubled corner of Africa.
The whereabouts of 63-year-old President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was just one month away from stepping down after a decade in office, could not be confirmed. The U.S. Embassy issued a statement dispelling rumors that he had sought refuge in its compound.
The scene in this normally serene capital was unsettling to those proud of Mali's history as one of the mature democracies in the region. Soldiers smelling of alcohol ripped flat-screen TVs, computer monitors, printers and photocopiers out of the presidential palace, carting them off in plain sight. Others in pickup trucks zoomed across the broad avenues, holding beer bottles in one hand and firing automatic weapons with the other.
The mutineers said they were overthrowing the government because of its mishandling of an ethnic Tuareg insurgency in the country's north that began in January.
Tens of thousands of Malian civilians have been forced to flee. The soldiers sent to fight the separatists have been killed in large numbers, often after being sent to the battlefield with inadequate arms and food supplies, prompting fierce criticism of the government.
The coup began Wednesday, after young troops mutinied at a military camp near the capital. The rioting spread to a garrison thousands of miles away in the strategic northern town of Gao.
By evening, soldiers had surrounded the state television station in Bamako. At dawn Thursday, some 20 soldiers huddled behind a table, facing the camera. They introduced themselves as the National Committee for the Re-establishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State, known by its French abbreviation CNRDR.
"The CNRDR representing all the elements of the armed forces, defensive forces and security forces has decided to assume its responsibilities and end the incompetent and disavowed regime of Amadou Toumani Toure," they said, reading from a statement.
"The objective of the CNRDR does not in any way aim to confiscate power, and we solemnly swear to return power to a democratically elected president as soon as national unity and territorial integrity are established."
The soldiers said they intend to hand over power to an elected government, though they made no mention of the fact that elections are supposed to be held on April 29.
Criticism of the coup was swift. France said it would suspend all government cooperation with Mali, except for aid.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: "The United States condemns the military seizure of power in Mali" and said the U.S. stands by Mr. Toure's legitimately elected government.
And the regional body representing countries in the region, the Economic Community of West African States, called the coup "reprehensible."