BAMAKO – Mali’s junta leader appealed on Friday for foreign help to secure the West African country against a separatist Tuareg uprising after the rebels entered the strategic northern town of Kidal.
The West African country is an indirect victim of last year’s conflict in Libya, from where weapons spilled out and bolstered a northern rebellion. The coup was led by soldiers who complain the government has not given them adequate means to fight off the uprising.
The call by Captain Amadou Sanogo, who seized power last week during an army mutiny, came a day after Mali’s neighbours gave him 72 hours to hand back power to civilians – an ultimatum he did not directly address in a short statement.
“Our army needs the help of Mali’s friends to save the civilian population and Mali’s territorial integrity,” Sanogo told a news conference at the army barracks just outside the capital Bamako now serving as the country’s presidency.
The rebels, who began fighting for an independent north in January, have seized on the confusion caused by last week’s coup to prepare offensives on the three regional centres in Mali’s remote north.
In their most important victory so far, rebel forces entered Kidal early on Friday after soldiers abandoned one of the two local military camps there, military and diplomatic sources told Reuters.
“Ansar Edine (rebel) forces are entering from the south. The military has left,” a diplomat in touch with civilians in the area said, requesting not to be named.
A military source in Kidal told Reuters the soldiers abandoned their positions in one camp so as to coordinate a counter-offensive. Kidal residents said the besieged town had come under heavy weapons fire from rebels on Thursday.
“The rebels are going around town, telling people to go about their businesses as usual. They are all armed in pickup vehicles. Women uttered cries of joy to greet them at the airport,” said Kidal resident Moussa Maiga by phone.
APPEAL FOR UNDERSTANDING
Ironically, the mutiny was sparked by army anger that the government had not provided it with adequate weapons to combat northern rebels bolstered by arms that leaked out of Libya during last year’s conflict. But if anything it has emboldened the rebels and allowed them to make further advances.
Mali’s neighbours on Thursday demanded the leaders begin handing back power to civilians by Monday or face a crippling closure of trade borders, diplomatic isolation and a freeze in funding from the regional central bank.
The measures, if applied, could further damage the interests of international miners in Africa’s third biggest gold producer. Uncertainty over the future has already pushed their shares lower on Western stock exchanges.
While not responding directly to the ultimatum, Sanogo said the junta “understood the situation” of the 15-member West African ECOWAS bloc, but pleaded for them to look again at land-locked Mali’s plight and possible solutions.
“We are inviting ECOWAS to deepen its analysis of the situation in Mali and how Mali got here,” said Sanogo, who has previously described the entire political class around ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure as corrupt and incompetent.
Fragile neighbours such as Niger and Ivory Coast are concerned that a successful coup in Mali could encourage copy-cat moves on their soil. ECOWAS has threatened to use military force as a last resort to reverse the coup.