NAIROBI, Kenya — Mali’s main airport is shut, the borders are closed and a curfew declared. Mutinous soldiers have taken over the presidential palace and the state broadcaster. Gunshots still ring out in different parts of the capital Bamako.
It's a coup.
Malian soldiers began their mutiny on Wednesday afternoon in a single barracks. It started with a seemingly spontaneous outburst against the minister of defence, General Sadio Gassama, who was visiting the encampment.
The soldiers' key grievance was a lack of arms and equipment needed to properly tackle a Tuareg insurgency that has been triggered by the return of former pro-Gaddafi fighters coming back from Libya with their weapons. The soldiers at Kati Barracks, 13 miles outside Bamako, fired in the air, the minister fled, and the revolt began.
Months after his inglorious death at the hands of rebel fighters, Gaddafi’s influence is being felt far beyond his unmarked grave.
The separatist Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) have scored a string of victories against Mali’s army in the country’s vast northern desert in recent months. A rebel spokesman has already threatened to take advantage of the current confusion over the coup to push forward.
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Twenty-four hours on, it does not look like a pre-planned coup, and it is far from consolidated. The rebellious soldiers have named themselves the National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State, (CNRDR), but it remains unclear how much support the coup leaders have, either among the civilian population or the army.
The two-dozen or so soldiers who appeared on state television to declare they had taken over were mostly junior officers. Their leader, Amadou Sanogo, is only a captain. More senior officers and others in the security apparatus — which includes troops trained in counter-terrorism by the US — have not yet declared their position.
A handful of government ministers have reportedly been arrested, but the whereabouts of President Amadou Toumani Toure, 63, is still in doubt. Initial reports had him seeking refuge at the US embassy, but these seemed to be discredited a few hours later by a government official who said the president was at an army barracks surrounded by loyal troops.
Whether the president will make a stand or accept his ouster is also, for now, unclear, and will determine whether Wednesday’s coup is a fait accompli or simply an attempted putsch that triggers more fighting.
Mali is of little economic significance — landlocked, it is one of the world’s poorest countries, and produces mostly gold and cotton — but it is of strategic importance to the US for its assistance in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the subsidiary of Al Qaeda which is gaining in strength and audacity and hides out in the deserts of northern Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria.
Although these are the same areas that Tuareg nomads call home — and despite the allegations of Mali’s government — there is no firm evidence of links between Islamist militants and the Tuaregs.
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Mali has for the last two decades been an anchor of relative stability in a region prone to conflict. It has, for the most part, maintained a good semblance of democracy, so the current situation is a worry not just for Mali but for the region, which is already under pressure from resurgent Islamists and drought-driven food shortages.
It is no surprise then that the coup has been condemned from almost every side including the United Nations, African Union, European Union, US, South Africa and regional bloc ECOWAS.
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