African leaders scrap Mali trip after runway invasion

BAMAKO, Mali, March 29 — Jets carrying West African presidents for a meeting with Mali’s new military leadership were forced to turn back mid-flight today after protesters opposing foreign interference in the wake of last week’s coup briefly invaded Bamako’s main runway.

An official from regional bloc ECOWAS said the meeting, aimed at pressuring coup leaders to swiftly restore constitutional rule after they ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure, could be rescheduled for tomorrow if security allowed.

“It was called off after the junta allowed demonstrators onto the tarmac, contrary to a commitment made to foreign ministers at a meeting yesterday,” the official said, asking not to be named. “Understandably this created a security scare forcing the heads of state to suspend their arrival.”

Hundreds of pro-junta protesters at Bamako airport, some carrying banners reading “ECOWAS, let us solve our own problems” and “ECOWAS, shame of Africa”, had briefly streamed onto the runway before junta leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, persuaded them to leave.

Regional neighbours have said they are prepared to use sanctions and possible military force to dislodge Mali’s new army leaders, while the United States and former colonial ruler France condemned the putsch.

Five heads of state — from Ivory Coast, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso and Liberia — gathered at Abdijan airport in Nigeria this afternoon to discuss the next step, while the sixth member of the planned delegation, Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan, remained in Nigeria, sources said.

Rebels take advantage

A Reuters reporter at Bamako airport said most of the red carpet laid out for the arrival of the visiting presidents had been rolled up.

Rival camps of hundreds of youths, some supporting and others opposing the junta, had clashed in downtown Bamako this morning, throwing rocks at each other.

Mali’s coup was triggered by army anger at President Toure’s handling of a Tuareg rebellion in north Mali that has gained ground in recent weeks.

The rebels, who are seeking to carve out a desert homeland, have said they plan to use coup chaos in Bamako to attack further towns, including Timbuktu.

A resident of Kidal, one of the biggest towns in Mali’s north, told Reuters that heavy weapons fire had erupted this morning on the town’s outskirts.

Toure’s overthrow came just weeks ahead of a scheduled election in which the incumbent had not planned to stand.

ECOWAS defence chiefs met with the junta yesterday in advance of the planned visit of the heads of state, but a diplomat said the talks went poorly. — Reuters


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