Mali was in turmoil Tuesday after disgruntled army officers detained the president and the prime minister, sparking fears of a coup less than a year after the last military takeover in the impoverished west African nation.
The newest crisis to hit the vast country where jihadists control large swathes of territory sparked widespread international condemnation.
Army officers upset with a government reshuffle detained President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane and took them to the Kati military camp on the outskirts of the capital Bamako, two senior officials who declined to be named told AFP.
The pair lead an interim government that was installed under the threat of regional sanctions following a putsch in August, and the detentions on Monday raised fears of a second coup.
They were detained following a sensitive government reshuffle earlier in the day on Monday that was designed to respond to growing criticism of the interim government.
The military kept the strategic portfolios it controlled during the previous administration in the reshuffle.
But two coup leaders — ex-defence minister Sadio Camara and ex-security minister Colonel Modibo Kone — were replaced.
Coup leaders and army officers have wielded significant influence over the government, casting doubts on a pledge to hold elections by early next year.
The reshuffle came at a time of growing political challenges in the capital Bamako and pressure to stick to the deadline for promised reforms.
– ‘Grave and serious’ –
Although speculation of a coup swirled around Bamako late on Monday, the city remained relatively calm.
Briefly reached by phone Monday before the line cut, Prime Minister Ouane told AFP that soldiers “came to get him”.
EU leaders condemned what they called the “kidnapping” of Mali’s civilian leadership, said council president Charles Michel.
“What happened was grave and serious and we are ready to consider necessary measures,” he told reporters after a summit of the bloc’s 27 leaders, describing events as “the kidnapping of the president and the prime minister”.
Earlier, a joint statement by the United Nations, African Union, Economic Community of West African States, the European Union and the United States condemned the arrests and called for their “immediate and unconditional liberty”.
Later UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted a call for calm, and urged the “unconditional release” of the leaders.
AU head Felix Tshisekedi Tshilombo, who is the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on Tuesday called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of the pair as he “strongly condemned any action that aims to destabilise Mali”.
– ‘Send a message’ –
Young military officers ousted Keita on August 18 after weeks of protests over perceived government corruption and his handling of Mali’s jihadist insurgency.
After the 15-nation West Africa bloc ECOWAS threatened sanctions, the military junta handed power to a caretaker government that pledged to reform the constitution and stage elections within 18 months.
Coup leader Assimi Goita was appointed as vice president of the caretaker administration, and the interim president, Bah Ndaw, is a retired army officer.
Many have doubted whether the military-dominated government had the will — or the ability — to stage reforms on a short timescale.
Among other problems, the vast nation faces a major logistical and security challenge, as swathes of territory are in the hands of jihadists.
Doubts remained despite the interim government last month pledging to hold a constitutional referendum on October 31, with elections to follow in February next year.
On May 14, amid growing anger, the government then said it would appoint a new “broad-based” cabinet.
An official at Mali’s interim presidency, who requested anonymity, said the reshuffle was designed to send a message that “respect for the transition deadline remains the priority”.
He also underscored the necessity of replacing the defence and security ministers.
“They are not emblematic figures of the junta,” the official said, referring to the newly appointed ministers.
In an example of mounting unease, the opposition M5 movement — which spearheaded protests against Keita in 2020 — this month urged dissolving the interim government and demanded a “more legitimate” body.
But the M5 is divided. Two members of the Union for the Republic and Democracy party — part of the M5 — were appointed interim ministers Monday.