BAMAKO, Mali — Television screens throughout this landlocked country momentarily went black Friday, as residents near the building housing the state broadcaster saw troops erecting barricades, fearing a possible countercoup a day after a military takeover.
On Thursday, mutinous troops seized control of the state television station, and announced they had overthrown the government. The country's democratically elected president has not been heard from since. The renegade troops pillaged the presidential palace and on Friday, they began stealing everything from people's cars to the bananas sold by elderly women on street corners.
The television signal went dead for around an hour late Friday afternoon, then flickered back on. Facing the camera were a group of a dozen soldiers, who read a prepared statement denying that the leader of their coup had been killed, or that the station had been taken back by troops loyal to the country's legitimate government.
Hours later, coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo appeared on TV to say he was fine. He apologized for the looting, but deflected blame saying, "I have concrete proof that ill-intentioned people wore army and police uniforms to break into some people's places in order to turn the population against us ... I call on all Malians to stop the pillaging. That is neither our mission, nor our cause, nor our objective," he said.
The camera panned around the room to show the soldiers wearing different colored uniforms and berets. The coup leader pointed out that there were members of the police, the gendarmerie and the parachute regiment, a show of unity meant to dispel reports of a divide within the army.
The scene outside the station suggested that all was not in order. Sporadic shots rang out and large numbers of soldiers were seen amassing outside.
President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was overthrown in this week's military takeover, is himself a seasoned soldier, who headed the country's parachute commando unit. There has been speculation that loyalist troops, especially those at the 33rd Parachute Infantry Regiment which Toure once belonged to will attempt to take back power.
Contacted by telephone, resident Mohamed Traore said that after the signal went dead late Friday afternoon, he went outside and saw the troops rushing to put up large defenses. He lives 300 yards (274 meters) from the broadcaster and says that when he went to speak to them, the soldiers told him that the red beret-wearing loyalists were planning an attack. Freelance reporter Katarina Hoije, who is staying in the Laico Hotel which faces the broadcaster, said that she heard shots and saw troops arriving in large numbers.
Mali is considered one of the only functioning democracies in the region. This week's coup represents a major setback for the nation of 15.4 million at the feet of the Sahara desert. Although Toure initially took power in a 1991 coup, he became known as the "Soldier of Democracy" because he handed power to civilians, and retreated from public life. Years later he re-emerged to win the 2002 election and was re-elected in 2007.
He was due to step down next month at the end of his term. A dozen candidates were running in the April 29 vote, which is now in jeopardy.
The fears of a possible countercoup come as rebels from the Tuareg ethnic group pushed toward three strategic northern Malian towns, including the famed ancient city of Timbuktu, taking advantage of the power vacuum caused by the coup.
The second-in-command of the Tuareg rebels said his forces are advancing on the city of Kidal as dozens of government soldiers desert in the wake of the military takeover in the faraway capital, located nearly 1,300 kilometers (some 800 miles) away.
Col. Dilal ag Alsherif told The Associated Press in an exclusive satellite telephone interview that command of the West African nation's army is in disarray and his movement is taking advantage to fight for an independent nation for the lighter-skinned Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by the capital.
Ag Alsherif said he was speaking Friday from "very near to Kidal, you could say I am almost in Kidal," the northern government stronghold that is his next target. He said his men took the garrison of Anefis, a town south of Kidal, without a fight on Thursday. Meanwhile, in the equally important northern town of Gao, the head of a resident's committee said that the population had issued a "code red" because of reports that the rebels were about to attack. And in Timbuktu, once a tourist hotspot, a member of a citizens' militia said the rebels had contacted them to say that they wanted to take over the town.
Ironically, the putschists claimed that they had seized power because of President Toure's incompetent handling of the Tuareg insurgency. The rank-and-file soldiers are overwhelmingly from the south, and from ethnic groups that do not share the same culture as the Tuaregs. They have died in large numbers trying to keep towns in the north out of the hands of the Tuareg rebels ever since the rebellion started in January.
Instead of stopping the insurgency in the north, the coup is making it easier for the rebels to gain ground.
On Thursday, the whereabouts of Mali's democratically elected leader was unknown. African Union Chairman Jean Ping said he understood the president is being protected by loyalist soldiers.
"The president is in Mali for sure – not so far from Bamako," Ping said. "He is safe. We have been assured of that by those who protect him." He added that the putschists were likely to face resistance because not all units in the army had backed them.
"I think that the insurgents have not succeeded to have the officers with them," he said. "All the officers have not joined them. So they still have problems."
Michelle Faul contributed from Niamey, Niger. Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal, Martin Vogl in Bamako, Mali, and Luc van Kemenade in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia also contributed to this report.