Malian soldiers angered over the government's mishandling of the two-month-old Tuareg rebellion in the North say they have overthrown President Amadou Toumani Toure - just weeks before the election that would have marked an end to his mandate. The president's location is unknown. Frustration had long been brewing in the military in what had been one of the region's few stable democracies.
Residents told VOA that sporadic gunfire continued in Bamako Thursday just hours after renegade soldiers - calling themselves the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State - or CNRDR, seized control of the state.
Appearing on state TV early Thursday, the CNRDR spokesman, Amadou Konare, says the armed forces decided to put an end to the “incompetent regime” of President Amadou Toumani Toure. He says the constitution is suspended until further notice and all government institutions have been dissolved. He says an inclusive government will be created after consultation with the nation's representatives.
Stirrings of the coup began Wednesday morning with a mutiny by soldiers at a military camp near the capital and then spread to a military base in Gao, in the northeast.
Soldiers say they lack adequate weapons, ammunition and food as they confront Tuareg separatists in the north of the country. Since the rebellion began in January, numerous Malian soldiers have died or been captured, though the government has not released exact numbers.
The situation quickly spiralled Wednesday evening as soldiers stormed the state radio and television stations in Bamako and attacked the presidential palace with heavy weapons.
A number of government ministers have been arrested.
The soldiers have set up checkpoints around the capital, imposed a curfew and closed the country's land and air borders.
On state television, coup spokesman, Konare, said the CNRDR's objective is under no circumstances the seizure of power. He says they promise to hand power back to a democratically elected president as soon as the country is reunified and its integrity no longer threatened.
Mali was set to hold a presidential election on April 29. President Toure, a former army officer and coup leader himself, was not seeking another term. He has served his legal limit of two mandates.
It is not clear how pre-meditated the events of the last 24 hours were; however, frustration has long been brewing in the chronically under-resourced military.
West Africa Director for the International Crisis Group, Gilles Yabi, says that frustration has been increasingly apparent since January as the military suffered defeats by the Tuaregs in the north. However, he says there were rumors of a coup even before the Tuareg rebellion began.
In February, the widows and families of soldiers killed in the north took to the streets to protest government mismanagement of the rebellion.
The renewal of conflict in the north marked the collapse of a 2007 amnesty agreement. The rebels include former pro-Gadhafi fighters who have returned to Mali with arms acquired from the conflict in Libya. They are demanding the creation of an independent, Islamic state in the country's northern deserts, the ancestral homeland to tribes of nomadic Tuareg traders.
The United Nations Refugee Agency says fighting has displaced more than 180,000 Malians since January.
West Africa is no stranger to military coups. Mali is sandwiched between two countries, Mauritania and Niger, that have both, in the past four years, seen soldiers oust elected leaders, rewrite constitutions and organize fresh elections. Mali, however, was considered an exception.
Yabi says in Mali there were concerns that the government would try to push back or cancel the elections because of the insecurity in the north. He says the coup is unfortunate, as Mali has a strong tradition of political dialogue and likely could have arrived at a peaceful solution to both the grievances of the army in the north and the election.
The coup has sparked a mixed response from Malians.
Boubacar Ibrahim says the population shares the military's frustration but was not ready for an overthrow of the government. He says given more time, the government could have found a solution to the military's grievances. He says the suspension of the constitution and the curfew are worrying for the future of the democracy.
Others, however, see the coup as a necessary evil.
President of the Women's Movement for the Protection of Peace and National Unity, Mariam Djibrilla Maiga, says many people tried to get President Toure to take the rebellion more seriously. She says he wouldn't, so he had to be pushed aside. She says the government's handling of the situation was disastrous. She says the Tuaregs are better armed than the soldiers, and the army was humiliated. She says this coup was necessary to preserve national unity.
However, she and others say they hope the military will soon return power to civilians.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the head of the African Union commission, Jean Ping, both expressed concern in the early hours of the coup and called for grievances to be resolved in a peaceful and democratic manner.