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    Tuareg Rebels Threaten Unstable Mali

    Tuareg rebels continue to push south in Mali, as mutinous soldiers struggle to maintain control of the capital two days after they seized power in a coup that has created more problems than it solved.

    Mali's future looks more uncertain than ever.

    President Amadou Toumane Toure has not been seen or heard from publicly since Thursday. Rumors are flying of a countercoup in the works. Northern strongholds are bracing for a fight as ethnic Tuareg separatists push South.

    Bamako residents say mutineering soldiers have looted the presidential palace, gas stations and shops.

    Coup leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, says he is calling for an end to vandalism and pillaging but denies that his forces are involved. He says people posing as army and police are trying to undermine support for the coup. He says the military is united behind the coup. He says their priority is to maintain Mali's territorial integrity.

    The coup was spearheaded by rank-and-file army soldiers and junior officers. Captain Sonogo addressed the nation flanked by members of several military units, though the coup does not appear to have garnered broad military support, particularly among high-ranking officers.

    President Toure, a former paratrooper and coup leader himself, is believed to be safe and protected by his loyalist soldiers at a paratrooper camp outside the capital.

    Soldiers took power Thursday after staging a mutiny against what coup leaders say was the government's mishandling of the two-month old Tuareg rebellion in the North.

    Outgunned and lacking basic supplies,  including food, the army has suffered crushing defeats and numerous casualties there as it faced Tuareg separatists, many of them former pro-Moammar Ghadafi fighters who returned to Mali heavily-armed from the conflict in Libya.

    The rebel Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or MNLA, says it has met little resistance as it closes on the regional capital of Kidal.

    President of the District Council of Kidal, Mahamadou Belco Maiga, says the city is surrounded but they will defend themselves with all their means. He is asking the state to give them weapons.

    The chaos of the past 48 hours has left holes in northern defenses.

    Director of the Michael S. Ansara Africa Center in Washington, J. Peter Pham, says in staging what appears to have been a hasty and unplanned coup, soldiers made their situation worse.

    "They certainly did the one thing that was sure to get them the reverse of what they wanted because now France, the U.S., the European Union have all cut them off from military assistance," he said. "Until such time as the coup is reversed which does not look likely or until they hold the elections as they promise, we are talking months if not a year before military assistance is resumed in which time the Tuaregs will dig in, in the areas that they control in the North."

    Tuareg rebellions have waxed and waned in Mali since independence in 1960. Rebels now say they want an independent homeland in the North, called Azawad.

    Hama Ag Mahmoud, of MNLA's political wing, says their demands are the same. He says they want the Azawad but will not advance further than that. He says they do not want problems with this new regime or the old one. He says they are willing to negotiate with an established president supported by Mali's political class and international power, like the European Union, the United States or France.

    A storm of international condemnation has rained down on the coup leaders. The African Union suspended Mali. The EU and World Bank both suspended development aid to the West African nation. The United States warned Friday it could suspend its non-humanitarian assistance to Mali if democracy is not restored.

    Mali was one of West Africa's few established democracies. It was set to hold a presidential election on April 29. President Toure was not seeking another term, having served his legal limit of two mandates.

    Presidential candidate, Ibrahim Boubakar Keita, says constitutional order should be re-established immediately. He says the elections must take place on the original date.

    Coup leaders say Bamako will return to business as usual Tuesday. They say they are creating a government of national unity to organize elections.






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