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 could be heard ringing throughout the capital and soldiers were seen carting televisions and other goods out of the palace following a coup announcement on state television. President Amadou Toumani Toure’s whereabouts remained unclear.
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 are 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 around 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 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 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 him, but could not find Toure.
Young soldiers on motorcycles were shooting in the air Thursday morning in the capital of Bamako. Businesses remained shuttered and there was little traffic as most stayed home following the coup announcement.