West African heads of state aborted a mission to meet with coup leaders in the Malian capital, Bamako, on Thursday, after crowds supporting the military government demonstrated at the airport.
Red carpets were laid out on the tarmac and security forces, protocol officers and journalists stood around the airport for hours awaiting the arrival of the delegation from the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS.
But reports surfaced in the early afternoon that the plane carrying the heads of state, led by Ivorian president and ECOWAS chairman Alassane Ouattara, had turned back over concerns about demonstrations at the airport and other parts of Bamako. The meeting was to take place at the airport.
Young men chanted the name of coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo after security forces allowed them onto the tarmac a little after 10 a.m. local time.
One carried a sign that read: “Yes, we are for the CNRDR," referring to the name of the military government. Another young man held a sign saying, “ADO, we Malians regret having supported you," a reference to Ivorian President Ouattara.
Upon his arrival at the airport, Captain Sanogo walked onto the tarmac and addressed the crowd of between 100 and 200 people, speaking in both French and Bambara. The crowd was calm, stood behind lines indicated by police officers, and listened intently to the coup leader.
Sanogo said the people support their army - not an army that wants to stay in power but an army that saved the country. "I understand your desire to demonstrate and that’s fine, but understand that we cannot proceed without meeting with our fellow African leaders, to sit around a table and discuss how we got here and where we go from here," he said.
He asked the demonstrators to leave the tarmac in order for the planned arrival to go ahead. The crowd then exited and continued their demonstration on another part of the airport grounds.
The protests had been planned since the previous evening. State television on Wednesday evening featured youth and other civil society groups reading communiqués sharply denouncing ECOWAS - one calling them imperialists who want to sabotage a transition that is good for the people - and calling on Malians to come out on Thursday to protest the delegation.
Sékou Doumbia, 35, was among the first to arrive at the airport to protest at around 9 a.m.
He said they gathered to show the African Union and ECOWAS that the military government is not alone. And he warned that even if these organizations demand that the soldiers return to their barracks, civilians will take up the fight. Doumbia called it a fight against years of corruption and neglect by the government of Amadou Toumani Touré.
A student named Seydou Koné echoed a sentiment shared by most of those who talked to VOA, saying ECOWAS’s move now is too little too late.
"ECOWAS has no place here," he said. "A war is going on in northern Mali. Why hasn’t ECOWAS come to help negotiate a solution there? ECOWAS is stepping on our dignity."
Groups for and against the military government clashed in other parts of Bamako on Thursday.
The ECOWAS delegation included Ouattara and leaders from Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso. Earlier this week, the regional bloc suspended Mali and threatened sanctions on the new junta and possible military action if necessary.
President Touré was deposed last week in a coup by soldiers angry at his handling of an ethnic Tuareg rebellion in the north.