Mali coup: soldiers loot presidential palace after seizing power

Rebels claim they have put an end to 'incompetent regime' of President Touré but promise to restore democracy

Gunfire rang out in Mali's capital on Thursday as drunken soldiers looted the presidential palace after seizing power in a coup.

Witnesses in Bamako described bursts of shooting south of the central Badalabougou area as further details emerged about the mutinous soldiers, who have formed themselves into the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR).

The group appeared on Malian state television shortly after storming the presidential palace, stating that the government was incompetent. It has dissolved the constitution and democratic institutions, imposed a military curfew and closed the country's borders.

"The CNRDR … has decided to assume its responsibilities by putting an end to the incompetent regime of Amadou Toumani Touré," said a spokesman, Amadou Konare. "We promise to hand power back to a democratically elected president as soon as the country is reunified and its integrity is no longer threatened."

The soldier heading the rebellion, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, gave an interview to Malian state television saying that Touré is "doing well and is safe". However, he refused to say where the ousted leader is being kept, and did not make clear if they are holding him.

Residents in Bamako said gunfire was continuing and at least 20 people were reported to have been taken to hospital with gunshot wounds. Associated Press reported that soldiers smelling of alcohol ripped flat-screen TVs, computer monitors, printers and photocopiers out of the presidential palace. Others drove pickup trucks across the broad avenues, holding beer bottles in one hand and firing automatic weapons with the other.

"There has been more gunfire and people are scared," said one resident, Abdoul Karim Ba. "Everyone is staying at home and all the businesses are closed. This coup took everyone by surprise: Mali has been a stable democracy for 20 years."

The CNRDR claimed in a further statement to represent the entire armed forces, but senior figures in Mali said that they had never heard of Sanogo, and that the group did not have a single member higher than the rank of captain.

"It's the first time I've heard of [these names]," said Cheick Oumar Sissoko, leader of Mali's opposition party, African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence. "Now Sanogo has taken over: I don't know him, I don't know anything about him."

The events mark Mali's third military coup. Touré, who seized from a military regime power in 1991, successfully returned the country to democracy and entered politics as a civilian. Touré, a former military commander himself, was elected as president in 2002 after he had overseen a transition to democracy. Anger towards the government has been growing in the army since January, when an uprising led by rebels from the Tuareg ethnic group began attacking towns in northern Mali.

The rebellion, which has displaced 200,000 civilians in areas already affected by food shortages, has been strengthened by arms and returning soldiers from Libya's recent uprising, where many Tuaregs supported Muammar Gaddafi.

"Mali's army has been very angry since the Tuareg rebels started attacking towns in the north," said Sissoko. "They say they are very disappointed that the government has not done more to help them with equipment or food, and that the government has no capacity to resolve any of those problems. So they decide to stop them and now to try to continue the democracy with new elections."

But the CNRDR's claim to have democratic intentions was dismissed by international organisations, which were swift to condemn the coup. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called for calm and stated that said grievances had to be settled democratically.

Jean Ping, head of the commission of the African Union continental grouping, said he was "deeply concerned by the reprehensible acts currently being perpetrated by some elements of the Malian army".

Britain's minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, said: "The UK is deeply concerned by reports of an attempted coup in Mali. We completely condemn any actions which undermine democratic rule and the Malian constitution. We fully endorse the clear position of the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States and the call by the UN for a peaceful dialogue to resolve any grievances."


Afua Hirsch, west Africa correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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