Mali president and PM arrested by mutinous soldiers in apparent coup

Rebel leaders say they have detained President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Prime Minister Boubou Cisse after day of political chaos in West African nation

Malian soldiers are celebrated as they arrive at the Independence square in Bamako on August 18, 2020. (MALIK KONATE / AFP)
Malian soldiers are celebrated as they arrive at the Independence square in Bamako on August 18, 2020. (MALIK KONATE / AFP)

Mutineering soldiers in Mali on Tuesday detained President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Prime Minister Boubou Cisse, one of their leaders said.

“We can tell you that the president and the prime minister are under our control,” the leader, who requested anonymity, told AFP.

He added that the pair had been “arrested” at Keita’s residence in the capital Bamako.

Earlier, soldiers launched a mutiny from the nearby garrison town of Kati.

Another military official, who also declined to be named, said the president and prime minister were in an armored vehicle en route to Kati.

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (R) and Malian Prime Minister Boubou Cisse (L) attend the opening of the 12th edition of the Bamako Encounters Photography Biennial, November 30, 2019. (MICHELE CATTANI / AFP)

The dramatic escalation capped off a day of political chaos in Mali. The UN and former colonizer France have spent more than seven years trying to stabilize the country since a 2012 coup allowed an Islamic insurgency to take hold in the West African nation.

The unrest kicked off in Kati, where the previous coup originated under similar circumstances eight years earlier. The soldiers took weapons from the armory at the barracks, and then detained senior military officers.

Anti-government protesters cheered the soldiers’ actions, some setting fire to a building that belongs to Mali’s justice minister.

Prime Minister Cisse, who was believed to be sheltering with Keita, urged the soldiers to put down their arms and put the interests of the nation first.

“There is no problem whose solution cannot be found through dialogue,” he said in a communique.

Earlier in the day, government workers fled their offices as armed men began detaining officials, including the country’s finance minister Abdoulaye Daffe.

“Officials are being arrested — it’s total confusion,” said an officer at Mali’s Ministry of Internal Security, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to journalists.

Malian soldiers in civilian clothes are celebrated as they arrive at the Indipendence square in Bamako on August 18, 2020. (MALIK KONATE / AFP)

Mali’s president, who was democratically elected and has broad support from France and other Western allies, was believed to be sheltering at his private residence in Bamako’s Sebenikoro neighborhood along with the prime minister.

About 100 of the protesters who have been calling for Keita’s ouster gathered midday in Bamako in a show of support for the soldiers’ mutiny.

The regional bloc known as ECOWAS, which has been mediating Mali’s current political crisis, urged the soldiers to return immediately to their barracks in Kati, which is only 15 kilometres (less than 10 miles) from the presidential palace in the capital.

The United States said it was concerned about the situation unfolding in Mali, where French troops and UN peacekeepers have been working to stabilize the country amid the Islamic insurgency that took hold after the 2012 coup.

“The US is opposed to all unconstitutional changes of government, whether in the streets or by security forces,” tweeted J. Peter Pham, the State Department’s special envoy for the Sahel region.

The developments Tuesday bore a troubling resemblance to the events leading up to the 2012 military coup, which ultimately unleashed years of chaos in Mali when the ensuing power vacuum allowed Islamic extremists to seize control of northern towns. Ultimately a French-led military operation ousted the jihadists, but they merely regrouped and then expanded their reach during Keita’s presidency.

Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (right) reviews troops in Kati, near Bamako, on August 6, 2015, after visiting soldiers injured in an attack on their camp in northern Mali on August 3, 2015. (AFP/Habibou Kouyate)

On March 21, 2012, a similar mutiny erupted at the Kati military camp as rank-and-file soldiers began rioting and then broke into the camp’s armory. After grabbing weapons they later headed for the seat of government, led by then-Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo.

Sanogo was later forced to hand over power to a civilian transitional government that then organized elections. The man who won that 2013 vote — Mali’s current president — has faced mounting pressure to step down as his unpopularity has grown.

Regional mediators have urged Keita to share power in a unity government, but those overtures were swiftly rejected by opposition leaders who said they would not stop short of Keita’s ouster.

The current president has faced growing criticism of how his government has handled the relentless Islamic insurgency engulfing the country, once praised as a model of democracy in the region. The military faced a wave of particularly deadly attacks in the north last year, prompting the government to close its most vulnerable outposts as part of a reorganization aimed at stemming the losses.

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