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Guinea frees arms shipment bound for Mali, after holding them over worries of abuse

Guinea has released a container of arms destined for strife-torn Mali, officials said Wednesday, after holding the shipment for more than two months, underscoring the deep suspicion toward Mali's military ever since soldiers overthrew that country's democratically elected government.

Abdoul Kabele Camara, Guinea's minister of defense, said that a delegation from ECOWAS, the body representing nations in West Africa, had come and inspected the cargo, which included several tanks and armored personnel carriers, as well as ammunition.

"The arms have been released — I can affirm that," Camara told The Associated Press by telephone. "The Malians sent a delegation to see us. ECOWAS came and inspected the container, and we did an inventory. Together we decided that we could release it. We are now waiting for the Malians to bring the necessary equipment to transport the arms."

The arms were intercepted sometime in August at the port of Conakry, Guinea's sea-facing capital located on Africa's Atlantic coast. The arms had been ordered by Mali's ex-President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was ousted in a coup in March by a clique of military officers. The leader of the coup was forced to hand power to an interim civilian government, but many believe he is still calling the shots in Mali, a landlocked nation which shares a land border with Guinea.

The arms arrived around the time that New York-based Human Rights Watch released a damning report on Mali, showing widespread abuse by the leaders of the March 21 coup, including forced disappearances and sexual torture of detainees, including sodomy.

An advisor to the sitting president of ECOWAS, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said that initially regional leaders were worried about putting arms in the hands of the renegade soldiers. However, he said that they were eventually forced to release the arms because the military junta has officially stepped down, and Mali is a sovereign nation. A mitigating factor was that the shipment didn't include sophisticated weapons that could change the outcome of a conflict — it was mostly vehicles, he said, and small arms and ammunition.

Mali's northern half was taken over by Islamic radicals shortly after the coup, and Malian authorities have argued that they need the arms to be able to take back the north.

Camara, the Guinea defense minister, said that the shipment remains in Conakry under heavy security. The ball, he said, is now in Mali's court. They need to provide secure transport for the arms over nearly 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) of unmaintained roads separating Conakry, from Bamako, the capital of Mali.

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Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.