Outgunned against rebels, Mali soldiers overthrow government

After a string of defeats against better armed Tuareg rebels, Mali's army staged a mutiny and overthrew the government.

Harouna Traore/AP
Civilians cheer as mutinous soldiers drive past in Bamako, Mali, March 21. Gunshots could still be heard in the Malian capital late Wednesday, hours after angry troops started a mutiny at a military base near the presidential palace. Soldiers stormed the offices of the state broadcaster, yanking both TV and radio off the air.

Angered by the government’s inability to provide the food and weaponry needed to fight an armed rebellion in the north, Mali’s army launched a rebellion of its own yesterday. By Wednesday evening, they claimed to have overthrown the government in a coup d’etat.

The first shots rang out at an army barracks near Bamako, the nation’s capital, in what has become a familiar sign of mutiny and unrest. But rebellious soldiers eventually moved toward the presidential palace, and after overpowering the presidential guard and arresting President Amadou Toumani Toure, they took to the airwaves and announced that the constitution was suspended and that the parliament and other democratic institutions would be dissolved until elections are held, reports CNN.

"Considering the incapacity of the regime in effectively fighting against terrorism and restoring dignity to the Malian people, using its constitutional rights, the armed forces of Mali along with other security forces have decided to take on their responsibilities to put an end to this incompetent regime of President Amadou Toumani Toure," said the soldiers’ spokesman, Amadou Konare.

Mali has been considered one of the more stable democratic nations in West Africa, although Mr. Toure, the current president, came to power in an armed insurrection in 1991 before submitting to elections in 2002. The US and France also view Mali as a key frontline state fighting against Islamist militants calling themselves Al Qaeda of the Islamic lands of the Maghreb (AQIM).

But for Mali itself, the main security threat has always been less about the relatively small AQIM and more about the country’s restive Tuareg population in the north. Funded and armed by Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi – who trained an entire battalion of Tuaregs in his own Libyan national army – Tuareg rebels have launched two major rebellions in recent years, first in the early 1990s and later in 2007-2009. When Mr. Qaddafi’s government was toppled late last year, an estimated 2,000 well-armed pro-Qaddafi Tuaregs returned to northern Mali and began attacking and taking towns.

Tuaregs are a nomadic collection of tribes who share a single language and cultural heritage, residing in a wide band of the Sahara Desert, stretching from Niger and Burkina Faso in the West to Mauritania in the east and up into the north African nations of Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Rebellions in the past have been fought to seek some kind of self-rule, and even to redraw the national boundaries to create a Tuareg state. It is the secular nature of their goals that makes them distinct from, and possibly rivals to, the more Islamist AQIM. The Tuaregs's most recent attacks in Mali have displaced some 200,000 people and exacerbated a growing food crisis in the country as a months-long regional drought has taken hold.  

France, Mali’s former colonial ruler, condemned the mutiny, as did the African Union, according to the New York Times. Speaking to Europe 1 radio, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that his government “demands the re-establishment of constitutional order, and elections, which were scheduled for April, must take place as soon as possible.”

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland urged the mutineers to solve their grievances “through dialogue, not through violence.”

Reporters Without Borders issued a statement on Thursday, deploring the mutineers's takeover of Mali's state television along with a large number of journalists at the facility. "We deplore with the greatest energy that the state radio and television facilities have been occupied by the military, and that its antennae has been taken hostage," the group's statement said, in French. "We extend our concern for the journalists who are not able to do their work, and think of the Malian population who are deprived of numerous sources of information." 

Even without a Tuareg rebellion, international attention was being focused on Mali because of a crushing drought. Oxfam estimated that 13 million people across the region could be affected by lower-than-average rainfall and inevitable crop failures, and had launched a $36 million appeal for immediate food assistance to reach a million of the most vulnerable. Now conflict in Mali has added to the numbers of the hungry, and the United Nations is launching a separate appeal to deal with those displaced by conflict.

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