Bamako (Mali), Mar 22: Soldiers stormed the presidential palace of one of the only established democracies in this corner of Africa and announced today that they had seized control of the country, 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 the mutinous soldiers imposed a nationwide curfew. A flight headed to 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 weak response and mishandling of an ethnic Tuareg insurgency in the country's north. On national television, a group of around 20 soldiers in military fatigues were shown crowding around a desk, facing the camera.
They announced that the country is 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 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, defencive 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 coup is 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 ran and won the 2002 democratic election. The 63-year-old Toure was due to step down next month after two, five-year terms.
His whereabouts were unknown today. 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.
The events that culminated in the coup began Wednesday morning at a military camp in the capital, where Defence Minister Gen Sadio Gassama came for an official visit.
In his speech to the troops, the minister failed to address the grievances of the rank-and-file soldiers. The rebellion has claimed the lives of numerous soldiers, and those sent to fight say they are not given sufficient supplies, including arms or food.
Recruits started firing into the air yesterday morning. By afternoon, troops had surrounded the state television station in central Bamako, located in southwest Mali, yanking both the television and radio signals off the air for the rest of the day.
By yesterday evening, troops had started rioting at a military garrison located in the northern town of Gao, some 3,200 kilometres away.
A freelance journalist from Sweden who was driving to her hotel near the TV station around 4 pm yesterday said that trucks full of soldiers had surrounded the state broadcaster, where they set up machine guns facing the building.