Soldiers staging a mutiny in Mali rounded up a number of senior civilian and military officials from the capital on Tuesday and drove them back to their base, a Malian security source and an official in the prime minister’s office said.
Unconfirmed rumours that the mutineers had arrested President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita swept Bamako, prompting hundreds of anti-government protesters to pour into a central square to celebrate and say it was time for him to resign.
Neither source said who the officials were or how many had been arrested. Reuters has seen no evidence that Keita was among those rounded up. The president’s office could not be reached for comment.
Prime Minister Boubou Cisse issued a brief statement late in the afternoon calling for dialogue to resolve the crisis. He did not address the whereabouts of any officials nor say who he sought dialogue with.
“The outbursts observed reflect a certain frustration that could have legitimate causes,” Cisse said. “The government of Mali asks the authors of these acts to stand down.”
It was not immediately clear how many soldiers were involved. A Malian military spokesperson confirmed that gunshots were fired at the base in Kati, about 15 kilometres from the capital, but said he did not have any further information.
A mutiny in 2012 at the Kati base led to a coup that toppled then-president Amadou Toumani Toure and contributed to the fall of northern Mali to jihadist militants, who continue to operate across the north and centre of the country.
A European diplomat said a relatively small number of members of the national guard, apparently angered by a pay dispute, had seized a munitions depot on Tuesday but were then reported to have been surrounded by other government troops.
Mali’s president was democratically elected and has broad support from former colonizer France and other Western allies. A French military source said discussions were taking place between Mali’s army command and the mutineers.
In Bamako, hundreds of people poured into the square around the Independence Monument, the site of mass protests since June, calling for Keita to quit over alleged corruption and worsening security.
“Whether he’s been arrested or not, what is certain is that his end is near. God is granting our prayers. IBK is finished,” said Haidara Assetou Cisse, a teacher, referring to the president by his initials.
“We have come out today to call for the total resignation of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Because we heard there were shots fired by the military and we have come out to help our soldiers get rid of IBK,” opposition supporter Aboubacar Ibrahim Maiga said.
Protesters attacked the justice minister’s personal offices, setting parts of them on fire, a Reuters witness said.
U.S., France condemn any forced change
Elsewhere in the capital, government ministry buildings were evacuated, an official said, and gunfire was heard near the prime minister’s office, according to a security source.
The offices of state television ORTM were also evacuated, said Kalifa Naman, a senior ORTM official. There have been no reports of any attack on state TV, which was still broadcasting prerecorded programming.
A Bamako resident said armed men had shut down access to two bridges across the Niger River within the city. It was not immediately clear who the armed men were.
Western powers and a West African regional body condemned the mutiny. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France “condemns in the strongest terms this grave event.”
The U.S. envoy to West Africa’s Sahel region, J. Peter Pham, said on Twitter: “The U.S. is opposed to all extra-constitutional changes of government, whether it is by those in the street or defence and security forces.”
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said it “calls on the soldiers to return to their barracks.”
United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said Secretary General Antonio Guterres “calls on all Malians to preserve the integrity of the country’s democratic institutions.”
Foreign embassies urged their citizens to stay home.
The ongoing protests against Keita represent Mali’s worst political crisis since the 2012 coup. At least 14 people have been killed in the demonstrations.
Regional powers worry any prolonged unrest from the protests could derail the fight against Islamist militants in the region. Their presence has rendered large areas of the centre and north of Mali ungovernable.
Keita had hoped concessions to opponents and recommendations from a mediating delegation of regional leaders would help stem the tide of dissatisfaction, but the protest leaders have rejected proposals to join a power-sharing government.