Soldiers have attacked Mali’s presidential palace as a protest over the government’s handling of a Tuareg-led rebellion in the north turned into an all-out coup bid.
Heavy weapons fire rang out in the capital Bamako early on Thursday and the mutineers, who complain they lack arms and resources to face a separatist uprising in the Sahara desert north, forced the state broadcaster off the air.
One of the mutineers told the AFP news agency that soldiers had seized control of the palace and that Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, Mali’s foreign minister, was among those being held.
“We now know it is a coup d’etat that they are attempting,” a defence ministry official said, asking not to be named.
A diplomat confirmed the clashes at the presidential palace. The official said Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure was in a secure location but gave no further details.
State television came back on air late on Wednesday after programmes had been interrupted for several hours, announcing that it would issue an army statement shortly.
Early on Thursday morning a group of soldiers appeared on state TV, but there was no sound and no statment was delivered.
Anger has grown in the army at the handling of a Tuareg-led rebellion that has killed dozens, forced some 200,000 civilians to flee their homes and exposed Bamako’s lack of control over the northern half of a country.
Nii Akuetteh, an independent Africa policy analyst and researcher, told Al Jazeera that this was “definitely a coup attempt” as “the army has been unhappy for a while.”
“There is a segment of the army which has been criticising the president basically for one reason; many people in the army and the populace in the south of the country feel that the president has not armed the army properly and lost key garrisons in the north,” Akuetteh said.
“They hold the view that the president is not fighting strongly enough.”
Local sources in the northern town of Gao, a major military centre, also reported gunfire.
Soldiers have for weeks appealed to the government for better weapons to fight the rebels, who are bolstered by
fighters who had fought in Libya’s civil war last year. But one of the mutineers said they now wanted to topple Toure himself.
“He needs to leave power, that is all. The movement will only stop with the taking of the palace,” said the sergeant, who asked not to be named.
The situation in Mali was raised during consultations at the UN Security Council on Wednesday, British UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said, adding that council members appealed for calm and “respect for the constitutional order”.
Toure, in power since 2002, has said he is planning after April elections to hand over the reins of a country known for its gold, cotton and a once-flourishing desert tourist industry now undermined by a spate of hostage-takings by al-Qaeda allies.
The former paratrooper commander overthrew a dictatorship in a 1991 coup and relinquished power a year later before returning to office via the ballot box.
Dozens of mutineers in pickup trucks seized the area near the state broadcaster in Bamako and programmes went off air after around 10 minutes of automatic gunfire. Crowds of youths, some cheering and burning tyres, gathered nearby.
“These people are tapping into frustrations of the population,” said one Bamako-based diplomat.
Bamako was briefly paralysed last month as hundreds of Malians put up street barricades and burned tyres in the streets to protest at the government’s handling of the rebellion.
A Reuters correspondent said the streets of Bamako were deserted. A resident in Magnambougou, a neighbourhood to the south of the local river, said a convoy of 20 vehicles was ferrying soldiers towards one of the city’s main bridges.
A military source said a trigger for Wednesday’s events was a visit by the defence minister to a barracks in the town of Kati about 20km north of Bamako.
“The minister went to speak to troops but the talks went badly and people were complaining about the handling of the
crisis in the north,” the source said.
An official in the defence ministry who was at the meeting said a soldier accused the defence minister of betraying them by not giving them means to fight the rebels.
Soldiers then began throwing rocks at the minister before they took weapons from the armory and started shooting in the air.
The clashes have added a new layer of insecurity to a zone awash with smugglers and plagued by fighters linked to al-Qaeda.
Tuareg fighters seeking to carve out a desert homeland in Mali’s north have made advances in recent weeks, including the seizure this month of the key garrison town of Tessalit by the Algerian border.
The rebel movement has been bolstered by heavily armed Tuareg returning from fighting with Libyan forces who tried in vain to prevent Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow last year.