Some normalcy has returned to the capital, Bamako, following days of looting and chaos after the coup [AFP]

The United Nations Security Council has expressed deep criticism of  the coup in Mali and added to international demands for the democratically elected government to be returned.

Monday's condemnation puts the Security Council in line with the African Union and other regional organisations and governments in opposing the soldiers who overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure on March 22.

A formal statement released by the council said the "fragile security and humanitarian situation" in the Sahel nations, several countries that stretch across northern Africa, had been "exacerbated" by the return of thousands following last year's uprising in Libya.

"The Security Council strongly condemns the forcible seizure of power from the democratically-elected government of Mali by some elements of the Malian armed forces," read the statement.

The statement went on to demand that "mutinous troops" halt all violence and "return to their barracks. The Security Council calls for the restoration of constitutional order, and the holding of elections as previously scheduled".

Also on Monday, the United States said it would suspend $60 to $70mn in aid to Mali but would continue to provide food and humanitarian assistance to the West African nation.

"We have now taken a decision to suspend our assistance to the government of Mali pending a resolution of the situation on the ground," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

Domestic pressure

Domestically, leaders of the military coup face increasing pressure with Malian legislators and opposition figures seeking their departure as Tuareg rebels closed in on a key northern town.

In the capital, Bamako, days after the coup, several hundred people gathered at a meeting of 38 political parties who announced the formation of a united front against the junta.

"Our aim is clear, to get the junta to leave," said Soumaila Cisse, who would have been one of the main presidential candidates in polls that had been planned for April 29 but were cancelled by the military rulers.

"This coup d'etat is unconstitutional and we will not accept it," Cisse said on Monday.

The National Assembly issued a statement demanding an immediate return to  constitutional order, the opening of all borders, the release of all arrested government officials and for elections to go ahead as planned.

In defiance of the coup, 14 government figures, including the prime minister and foreign minister, have begun a hunger strike over their detention at a military barracks outside the capital, which serves as the junta headquarters.

"There are 14 of us in a room of 12 square metres, sleeping three to a mattress," said a message from one of the officials sent to the AFP news agency.

Tuareg onslaught

However, rebels taking advantage of the coup, are negotiating with soldiers for a peaceful resolution in Mali's strategic northern garrison town of Kidal, according to representatives of the Sahara's nomadic Tuareg people.

Kidal would be a major prize for the rebels, who relaunched their decades-old fight in mid-January, led by battle hardened officers and troops who returned after fighting on the side of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

It is not known how many civilians remain in the town of about 26,000 where soldiers are living with their families.

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Meanwhile, Moses Wetangula, the Kenyan foreign minister, who returned to Nairobi after being stranded in Mali following the coup, criticised the coup leaders for their actions. He said there was a dangerious amount of weapons from Libya in the country.
The Tuareg fighters have profited from the disarray in Mali's military command following Wednesday's coup by soldiers led by a middle-ranking US trained officer, Captain Amadou Sanogo.

Sanogo said he wanted  to negotiate with the rebels, but he also has promised to give the army what it needs to halt the insurgency.

Disgruntled soldiers who staged the coup claimed the government was not giving soldiers the arms, ammunition and food supplies, which were needed to defend themselves and fight the rebels.

Monday marks the 21st anniversary of the last coup, when Toure led the  overthrow of dictator Moussa Traore.

Source: Agencies