NAIROBI, Kenya — In the latest unforeseen consequence of the toppling of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, a barracks mutiny turned into a full-fledged military power grab in the West African nation of Mali on Thursday, replacing an elderly, well-regarded statesman with a cadre of unknown junior officers.
On the face of it, Mali, which has been a democracy for 20 years, would not seem to be have been a prime candidate for Africa's latest coup, especially compared to its far more politically fluid neighbors in the impoverished region. President Amadou Toumani Toure was due to step down ahead of elections slated for April 29.
But events in the country took a sharp turn downhill after the conflict in Libya last year sent thousands of restless nomadic Tuareg tribesmen, whose Sahara Desert homeland stretches across the borders of five countries, spilling back into Mali's marginalized desert north, laden with weapons and military experience from having served in the Libyan army.
In a rebellion that began in January, the Tuareg from Libya quickly took ground against the Malian army. The Malian troops complained they did not have enough arms to counter the northern rebellion, and the young officers who took power seem to have tired of Toure's rhetoric of reconciliation, and his government's inability to impose control on the wild north.
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In a televised statement, the military officers representing the country's new rulers said they were "putting an end to the incompetent regime of Amadou Toumani Toure."
The U.S. and the pan-continental African Union immediately condemned the move, which robbed the West of a rare example of a democratic transfer of power in Africa. Toure, who is believed to be alive and in hiding, was finishing his second term as president. The constitution did not allow him to run for a third term, but unlike some of his peers, the Malian leader never attempted to rewrite the books to hang onto power.
The U.S. stands "with the legitimately elected government," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement, while Jean Ping, the commission chair of the African Union, said the military takeover "constitutes a significant setback for Mali."
The timing also raises questions about the motives of the coup leaders and whether they intend to return power to civilians after elections, as they claimed.
"It is quite surprising to have a military coup just before an election in which the president was stepping down," said Gilles Yabi, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based group that studies conflicts around the world. "I understand the mutineers have no clear plan on what to do with power now."
Obtaining news from Mali's capital, Bamako, was difficult, and the new military leaders moved quickly to shut down Mali's airspace and close its borders.
Kenya's foreign minister, Moses Wetangula, who is stranded in Bamako until he can be evacuated, wrote on his Facebook page on Thursday: "We are still concerned and worried about our safety." Earlier in the day, he'd posted that the city was in turmoil. "Situation worsening. Curfew imposed. Airport closed. Heavier gunfire can be heard repeatedly."
The BBC reported that rebelling troops had looted the presidential palace.
Malian democracy is the biggest domino to come crashing down in the African Sahara's exposed underbelly — where jobs are scarce, governments weak, arms rampant and ethnic grievances rife — since last year's conflict in Libya shook the region.
Gadhafi cast a wide shadow over his poorer neighbors to the south, flooding his friends with money and funding rebellions against his enemies. He also befriended the Tuareg and opened Libya's doors to streams of West African migrant laborers.
No people were more affected by Gadhafi's fall than the Tuareg, a tribe of desert nomads whose traditional homeland spreads across the borders of several countries. Thousands of Tuareg had moved to Libya to work, and many had joined Gadhafi's army.
When rebels overwhelmed Gadhafi's forces, the Tuareg fled south across the Sahara, returning to their homes in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Algeria. Many carried with them the heavy weapons they'd held as Gadhafi soldiers. Those that had been truck drivers or oilfield laborers suddenly were without income as they fled south.
Shortly after Gadhafi's fall, experts predicted that the returning Tuareg could become a problem, with a population of 1.5 million to 3 million spread across a desert expanse that is largely outside the control of the region's governments.
To many Tuareg, Gadhafi was the closest thing they had to a friend in a region whose leaders are suspicious of the desert people's fiercely independent and sometimes violent ways. Tuareg representatives are a rarity in the capitals of any of the countries where they range, but Gadhafi visited Tuareg lands, tossed about his petrodollars, supported the rebels and mediated 2009 peace deals that ended Tuareg rebellions in Niger and Mali.
Fighting broke out in northern Mali in early January as the Tuareg seized several towns. The Malian army retook the towns, but the Tuareg revolt continued, with the rebels advancing throughout northern Mali. Some reports suggest that about a third of the country is now under Tuareg control.
Experts also worried that the Tuareg would become easy partners with al Qaida's North Africa chapter, al Qaida in the Maghreb, a ghost-like band that has undertaken kidnappings of Westerners in Mali and Niger and attacked military bases in Algeria.
That concern propelled the United States to start training the Mali military in counterterrorism operations to fight AQIM — presumably some of the same units that now have seized control of the country.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)
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