Friday, March 23, 2012



Published: March 22, 2012

Soldiers in Mali, a West African nation often cited as a democratic model, overthrew the elected government on Thursday, looted the presidential palace, arrested ministers and declared that they had seized power.

It was the latest government to fall as a consequence of the Arab Spring, though in this case it did not come through popular uprisings or protests for democracy. To the contrary, Mali was preparing to hold elections only a month from now, and the president, adhering to the Constitution, was not running again.

But the downfall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya sent a flood of weapons into Mali, bolstering a longstanding rebel movement in the country’s vast desert north and delivering many defeats to Malian forces. The mutinous soldiers who led the coup, low-ranking officers and enlisted men, said on state television that they had been fed up with the way Mali’s government was confronting the rebellion, complaining about being underequipped for the fight.

Foreign governments, analysts and some Malians deplored Thursday’s coup — in a country that has not had one since 1991 — as a severe setback for democracy in Africa. The huge, mostly desert nation, considered one of the least likely candidates for a coup attempt in all of West Africa, was threatened with immediate foreign aid cutoffs.

Analysts cited the coup as an example of how Colonel Qaddafi’s overthrow could yield unexpected political mutations, destabilizing parts of the vast Sahara region. In Mali, many of the rebels had fought for Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, equipping themselves extensively from his armories before returning home and joining the rebellion against the Malian government.

The colonel’s weapons have allowed the rebels, nomadic Tuareg tribesmen, to score surprising victories off the Malian Army in the desert north, where they control large stretches of territory. Previous such uprisings have been suppressed; this one shows no signs of being snuffed out.

That relative guerrilla success — whole towns have been captured, and soldiers chased out of their garrisons — has led, analysts say, to intense frustration in the 7,000-strong Malian Army, which blamed the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré, a former general, for the military’s shaky position. Discontent has been brewing for months, with officers complaining of a lack of weaponry and effective leadership in curbing the rebellion. There have been marches in the capital, Bamako, as well as bonfires and barricades.

On Wednesday, the soldiers rose up in revolt, storming the state broadcaster in Bamako and the presidential palace. As of Thursday evening, the previously unknown military men, calling themselves the National Council for the Recovery of Democracy and the Restoration of the State, appeared to be in control of the government. A spokesman announced on state television that Mali’s Constitution had been “suspended” and its institutions “dissolved.”

The spokesman, Lt. Amadou Konaré, blamed the “incompetent regime” of Mr. Touré for his overthrow, citing “the incapacity of the regime to fight against the terrorists.” He spoke in halting French, stumbled over the junta’s moniker and was surrounded by humble-looking soldiers in the uniforms of enlisted men or low-ranking officers.

Lieutenant Konaré said the government had not given the troops adequate means “to defend the nation” against the northern rebels. He promised that civilian rule would be restored. The leader of the mutinous troops, identified on state television as Capt. Amadou Sanogo, appeared briefly to announce that a curfew was in force, and the junta members ordered Mali’s land and air borders closed.

The president’s whereabouts were not known Thursday night, and human rights groups reported that a number of his ministers had been arrested.

The coup was all the more unexpected because of the presidential elections scheduled for April 29. Mr. Touré long ago announced that he would respect the Constitution and not seek another term. That attitude was in sharp contrast to what has occurred in neighboring countries — Senegal, Niger and Ivory Coast — whose leaders have sought to hang on to power past constitutional limits. African news media have cited Mr. Touré as an exemplar for the region over the last year.“I’m very surprised,” said a leading French specialist on Mali, Pierre Boilley of the Sorbonne. “That it should transform itself so quickly into a coup d’état, it’s very surprising in Mali.”

Still, whether or not power has been definitively seized remained an open question. It was not clear how much beyond the presidential palace and the television the officers’ writ extended, or whether they commanded much support elsewhere in the Malian Army.

In addition to the looting of the palace, witnesses said stores in Bamako had been pillaged. And a leading presidential candidate, Soumaïla Cissé, said the soldiers had sacked his house.

“They broke everything; my house is now uninhabitable,” said Mr. Cissé, a former finance minister, who said he was in hiding to avoid the fate of other senior political figures. “The situation is very serious, and absolutely chaotic,” he said. “It’s a very, very big step back for democracy.”

Meanwhile, the French government called for elections “as soon as possible” in its former colony. The French Foreign Ministry said it was suspending cooperation with Mali except for food aid and joint effort to combat terrorism.

The White House press secretary issued a statement condemning “the violence initiated by elements of the armed forces of Mali” and calling for “the immediate restoration of constitutional rule.” The statement said that the United States stood by “the legitimately elected government” of Mr. Touré.

The Malian leader is a former soldier who overthrew the president-for-life, Moussa Traoré, in 1991 before handing power back to civilians. He came to office in elections in 2002 and was returned to office in 2007.

Apart from the rebellion in the north, Mali has acknowledged in the past that several hundred fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have found sanctuary in its desert reaches. The United States has worked closely with Mali to try to contain such threats, sending Green Berets to train Malian forces.

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.