A new eruption of violent clashes in Mali's capital, Bamako, has exposed the fragility of an agreement to restore democracy in the war-torn West African nation.
Mali's military junta, which seized power in a coup on March 22, is proving reluctant to step down, despite its pledge to do so. Like juntas in any country, its leaders are fighting for their self-interest, and they want to cling to power as long as possible.
The continued influence of the coup leaders, combined with a brutal revolt in northern Mali that has effectively divided the nation, is bad news for the Canadian government, which had provided military training and more than $100-million in annual aid to Mali before the coup.
Under intense pressure from other West African states, the junta agreed on April 12 to hand over power to a civilian government. But since then, the junta has shown its determination to keep as much influence as possible.
The interim government named a post-coup cabinet last week, but the military kept its grip on all of the top security posts in the cabinet. "Soldiers occupy the key positions when the focus should be on returning the army to the barracks," said a coalition of political parties and civil society groups after the cabinet was announced.
The bloc of West African states, ECOWAS, has called for elections in Mali within the next 12 months, and has proposed the deployment of 3,000 peacekeepers from West Africa to oversee the one-year transition to the elections. But both proposals were swiftly rejected by the coup leader, Captain Amadou Sanago, who appears to remain effectively in charge on the ground in Bamako.
Capt. Sanago's troops have continued to arrest supporters of the ousted president in recent weeks, despite the junta's promise to step down.
One such arrest was reportedly the trigger for the latest clashes in Bamako. Troops under the command of the junta sought to arrest the commander of the "Red Berets" – the presidential guards who remain loyal to the former president, Amadou Toumani Toure, who has fled to neighboring Senegal.
The attempted arrest sparked clashes at several strategic points in Bamako, with gunfire and heavy weapons fire echoing across the city Monday and Tuesday. As many as 14 people were killed, according to some reports.
At the end of the attempted counter-coup Tuesday, the junta leaders said they still held control of the state broadcasting building, the airport and the army barracks. But more gunfire was reported in the capital later in the day.
The junta blamed "foreign elements" and "mercenaries" for stirring up the clashes. State television, controlled by the junta, showed pictures of small groups of prisoners who were said to be involved in the counter-coup.
Meanwhile, more than 320,000 people have fled from northern Mali because of the fighting there, the United Nations says. More than 180,000 of the displaced people have become refugees in desperate conditions in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, and more are crossing the borders every day.
A new report by Human Rights Watch has documented a series of war crimes by armed groups in northern Mali, including the ethnic Tuareg separatists and Islamist extremists who seized control of the north last month.
Among the war crimes were rape, the use of child soldiers, and the looting of hospitals, schools and aid agencies, according to the report by Human Rights Watch, an independent group based in New York that sent researchers to Mali last month.
"An Islamist armed group has summarily executed two men, amputated the hand of at least one other, carried out public floggings and threatened women and Christians," the report said.
It also reported that Malian army soldiers have arbitrarily detained and summarily executed some Tuareg civilians and security service members.