- Associated Press - Thursday, March 22, 2012

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Soldiers looted the presidential palace Thursday of one of the few established democracies in this corner of Africa, hours after ousting Mali‘s president just one month before he was due to step down at the end of his legal term.

Gunfire rang throughout the capital, and soldiers were seen carting televisions and other goods out of the palace following a coup announcement on state television. 

There were conflicting reports on President Amadou Toumani Toure’s whereabouts. One senior official said that the president was safely ensconced at a military camp, protected by his red-beret-wearing guards. Another denied the report, saying he was not at that base.

The mutinous soldiers imposed a nationwide curfew, warning people to stay off the streets until further notice. A flight headed to the capital of Bamako was forced to make a U-turn in the air after the airport closed.

The soldiers said they were overthrowing the government because of its mishandling of an ethnic Tuareg insurgency in the country’s north that began in mid-January. The rebellion grew when fighters who had supported the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi returned home heavily armed. The unrest has forced tens of thousands to flee and has prompted fierce criticism of Mali‘s government.

Early Thursday, a group of about 20 soldiers in military fatigues were shown on national television crowding around a desk, facing the camera.

They announced that Mali is now under the control of the military’s National Committee for the Reestablishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State, or CNRDR. They said they were suspending the Mali‘s Constitution and dissolving its institutions.

The soldiers complained that the civilian government had not done enough to combat a rebellion by the ethnic Tuareg separatists, who want to carve out a homeland in the country’s northern desert.

“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 (President) 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 West African regional bloc ECOWAS said it “strongly condemns the misguided actions of the mutineers.” The group said it was “all the more reprehensible, coming amidst the ongoing regional and international efforts to seek a peaceful solution to the rebellion in the north of the country.”

The soldiers’ declaration also came just hours after the presidential palace had rushed to deny that a coup was in progress, issuing a Tweet that said: “There is no coup in Mali. There’s just a mutiny.”

The latest developments mark a major setback for one of the region’s few established democracies. The ousted president came to power himself in a 1991 coup but was hailed for handing power to civilians. A decade later, he won the 2002 democratic election. The 63-year-old Mr. Toure — known by his initials, ATT — was due to step down next month after two five-year terms.

Contacted by telephone, a soldier at the palace said that the president’s bodyguards had failed to fight the renegade soldiers who burst in. They searched the grounds looking for Mr. Toure, but could not find him.

Young soldiers on motorcycles were shooting in the air Thursday morning in Bamako. Businesses remained shuttered, and there was little traffic as most stayed home following the coup announcement.

The U.S. military has been training some Malian troops in counterterrorism tactics to help the country fight al-Qaeda-linked militants who have kidnapped scores of foreigners and held them in the desert.

But soldiers fighting the Tuareg rebellion say they have not been given sufficient supplies, including arms or food. Numerous soldiers have been killed in the more than two-month-long insurgency.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Gen. Sadio Gassama went to a military camp in the capital for an official visit but failed to address the grievances of the rank-and-file soldiers in his speech to the troops.

Recruits started firing into the air Wednesday morning, and by afternoon, troops had surrounded the state television station, yanking both the television and radio signals off the air for the rest of the day. By Wednesday evening, troops had started rioting at a military garrison located in the northern town of Gao, some 2,000 miles away.

A freelance journalist from Sweden who was driving to her hotel near the TV station in Bamako around 4 p.m. Wednesday said that trucks full of soldiers had surrounded the state broadcaster, where they set up machine guns facing the building.

“They came and started setting up checkpoints. There were military in the streets, stopping people,” said Katarina Hoije, the journalist. “When we reached our hotel, which is just in front of the TV station, there were lots of military outside, and more cars kept arriving — pickup trucks with soldiers on them.”

The Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic people spread across the Sahara Desert, have risen up against the central government in Mali several times since the country’s independence from France in 1960.

The newest rebellion launched in mid-January broke years of relative peace and has been fueled by the return of Tuaregs from Libya who had fought in Gadhafi’s army. Refugees have spilled over into four of the countries neighboring Mali because of the uprising.

Thousands of Tuaregs moved from Mali to Libya over the decades beginning in the 1970s, and many joined special divisions of Gadhafi’s military, where they earned higher salaries than in Mali. A relationship developed between the Tuareg and Gadhafi, who claimed they had distant blood links.

When the Gadhafi regime fell last year, Tuareg troops smuggled Gadhafi family members to neighboring Algeria and Niger. After Gadhafi was killed in his hometown of Sirte in October, many Tuaregs no longer felt safe in Libya and began returning to Mali.

The government has not disclosed how many government soldiers have been killed. The toll is believed to be significant, and in February military widows led a protest, publicly grilling Mr. Toure on television over his handling of the rebellion.

Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi and Michelle Faul in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.

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