The trigger for the Mali coup appeared to be anger among members of the military who accused the government of failing to arm its forces adequately enough to put down a January uprising by Tuareg rebels in the north of the country.
NAIROBI, Kenya — In the latest unforeseen consequence of the toppling of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, a barracks mutiny turned into a full-fledged military-power grab in the West African nation of Mali on Thursday, replacing a well-regarded statesman with a cadre of unknown junior officers.
On the face of it, Mali, which has been a democracy for 20 years, would not seem to have been a prime candidate for Africa’s latest coup. President Amadou Toumani Touré, 63, was due to step down ahead of elections set for April 29.
But events took a sharp turn after the conflict in Libya last year sent thousands of restless nomadic Tuareg tribesmen, whose Sahara Desert homeland stretches across the borders of five countries, spilling back into Mali’s marginalized desert north, laden with weapons and military experience from having served in the Libyan army.
In a rebellion that began in January, the Tuareg from Libya quickly took ground against the Malian army. The Malian troops complained they did not have enough weapons to counter the northern rebellion, and the young officers who took power seem to have tired of Touré’s rhetoric of reconciliation and his government’s inability to impose control on the wild north.
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In a televised statement, a group of military officers representing the country’s new rulers said they were “putting an end to the incompetent regime of Amadou Toumani Touré.”
A spokesman for the group, a previously unknown officer identified in news reports as Lt. Amadou Konare, said Mali’s institutions had been “dissolved” and its constitution suspended.
He said a new group, the National Council for the Recovery of Democracy and the Restoration of the State, the CNRDR, had seized power. Konare insisted the group was not “in any way aiming at a seizure of power,” and promised a “restoration of democratic order.”
The U.S. and the African Union condemned the move, which robbed the West of a rare example of a democratic transfer of power in Africa. Touré, who was believed to be alive and in hiding, was finishing his second term as president. The constitution did not allow him to run for a third term, but unlike some of his peers, the Malian leader never attempted to rewrite the books to hang onto power.
The U.S. stands “with the legitimately elected government,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, while Jean Ping, commission chair of the African Union, said the military takeover “constitutes a significant setback for Mali.”
Obtaining news from Mali’s capital, Bamako, was difficult, and the new military leaders moved quickly to shut down Mali’s airspace and close its borders.
Kenya’s foreign minister, Moses Wetangula, who is stranded in Bamako, wrote on his Facebook page Thursday: “We are still concerned and worried about our safety.” Earlier in the day, he had posted that the city was in turmoil. “Situation worsening. Curfew imposed. Airport closed. Heavier gunfire can be heard repeatedly.”
The BBC reported that rebelling troops had looted the presidential palace.
Malian democracy is the biggest domino to come crashing down in the African Sahara’s exposed underbelly — where jobs are scarce, governments weak, arms rampant and ethnic grievances rife — since last year’s conflict in Libya shook the region.
Gadhafi cast a wide shadow over his poorer neighbors to the south, flooding his friends with money and funding rebellions against his enemies. He also befriended the Tuareg and opened Libya’s doors to streams of West African migrant laborers.
No people were more affected by Gadhafi’s fall than the Tuareg, a tribe of desert nomads whose traditional homeland spreads across the borders of several countries. Thousands of Tuareg had moved to Libya to work, and many had joined Gadhafi’s army.
When rebels overwhelmed Gadhafi’s forces, the Tuareg fled south across the Sahara, returning to their homes in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Algeria. Many carried with them the heavy weapons they’d held as Gadhafi soldiers. Those that had been truck drivers or oil-field laborers suddenly were without income as they fled south.
Fighting erupted in northern Mali in early January as the Tuareg seized several towns. The Malian army retook the towns, but the Tuareg revolt continued, with the rebels advancing throughout northern Mali. Some reports suggest that about one-third of the country is now under Tuareg control.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.