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With military in disarray, Tuareg rebels gain in northern Mali

March 23, 2012 |  1:30 pm

Bamako, Mali
REPORTING FROM KANO, NIGERIA -- Tuareg rebels seized territory in northern Mali on Friday in the wake of a military coup in the distant capital that left the military in disarray.

There were reports of soldiers abandoning their posts and running away in the confusion that followed the coup in Bamako on Thursday, raising speculation that the rebels could gain control of the north.

State television went off the air Friday, amid speculation of a counter-coup by troops loyal to President Amadou Toumani Toure.

The government was ousted by a group of disgruntled soldiers furious at its failure to properly arm and equip sparse military forces assigned to face the heavily armed and combat-hardened Tuaregs. Mali's military has only 7,000 soldiers.

The African Union on Friday suspended Mali's membership. The European Union suspended development activities in the country, which has already been hit hard by a food crisis and a collapse of tourism because of kidnappings of foreigners by an Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The EU said humanitarian aid wouldn't be affected.

Jean Ping, an African Union official, told reporters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that Toure, 63, was safe near Bamako. "We have been told that the president is safe, protected by a certain number of loyalists," Ping said.

As the army retreated from northern towns, the rebels' group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, took the northern town of of Anefis on Thursday and were threatening Kidal and Timbuktu on Friday, according to news reports.

A leader of the rebels, Dilal ag Alsherif, told the Associated Press in a satellite phone interview Friday that his forces were approaching Kidal, with the military in disarray. His men took Anefis without a fight, he said.

Amid rising international condemnation of the coup, the captain leading the junta, Amadou Sanogo, told the BBC on Friday that he would stand down once the country was secure and the Tuareg rebellion was over. He said that might take three to nine months.

But he appeared to be exercising little authority over soldiers in Bamako, or in the north.

The coup, just weeks before a presidential election was due, is a major setback for democracy in Western Africa. Mali had been seen as a democratic beacon in a region where leaders often cling to power or try to flout term limits.

Sanogo said former members of the government would be put on trial but that there was no intention to harm them. 

One reason for the anger among soldiers was the widespread perception of corruption and looting of government funds by military and government officials, analysts said.

Sanogo cited "a lack of equipment, a lack of training and our comrades are dying all the time" in the BBC interview. "So once this has been fixed, I'll be able to say, 'OK, go for election' in a short period of time. I promise."

While the army in the north retreated to the town of Gao, unruly soldiers in the capital ignored Sanogo's calls for order and looted shops and businesses.

"People are afraid because of the soldiers. Often [they take] what is in the car or they make you get out and take the car, or sometimes the soldiers themselves just break into shops," Bamako resident Adama Quindo told Reuters.

The position of the country's generals and senior military officials wasn't clear. None came out in support of Sanogo. 

Tuareg rebels, many of whom fought for Moammar Kadafi during the recent Libyan conflict, fled to Mali after his downfall, armed with sophisticated weapons. They launched an uprising in northern Mali in January, swiftly driving the army from several key towns. 

In fighting in January, the army was driven out of a military base in Aguelhok reportedly because the ammunition ran out. Dozens of soldiers were killed, with some reports of summary executions of civilians and soldiers by the rebels.

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-- Robyn Dixon

Photo: Soldiers secure the area around the presidential palace after a military coup in Bamako, Mali, on Friday, March 23, 2012. Credit: Harouna Traore / Associated Press

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