BAMAKO, Mali – Soldiers loyal to the former government tried to stage a countercoup in Mali on Monday, a spokesman for Mali's military junta said.
"They are trying to take control of the airport right now, but we will fend them off," said junta spokesman Bakary Mariko. He said the anti-junta forces have the support of mercenaries from the region.
"The idea is to try to take control of the airport so they can fly in ECOWAS troops," he said, referring to troops from the West African regional bloc that tried to mediate after junta leaders staged a coup late in March.
It's been just over a month since a group of soldiers toppled Mali's democratically elected president. Since then, junta leader Capt. Amadou Sanago signed a deal with ECOWAS to return the country to constitutional rule. The deal gave the junta a supervisory role in the transition.
"We hear they are going to try to attack our base at Kati too where I am now, but we are ready for them," Mariko said.
Fela Ba, a witness to the fighting, said he saw a large convoy of military vehicles heading to the town of Kati just outside Bamako, where the junta has set up its headquarters.
Witnesses said pro- and anti-junta forces were fighting in Mali's capital.
Bakary Doucoure, an eyewitness, said there was fighting Monday around the building that houses the country's national broadcaster and that ambulances were at the scene. The broadcaster has been in the hands of the military junta ever since the March 21 coup.
Yaya Konate, the head of the broadcast station, said that troops arrived at the station at around 6:30 p.m. firing in the air and told all personnel working there to leave. He said the soldiers who took charge of the building were from a group known as the Red Berets.
A senior Western diplomat based in Bamako told The Associated Press that he believed the fighting started when forces loyal to the junta tried to arrest the former head of the presidential guard. The diplomat asked for anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The presidential guard is part of Mali's parachutist regiment, known as the Red Berets. The parachutists were thought to have remained loyal to ex-President Amadou Toumani Toure during the coup, and only reluctantly submitted to the authority of the junta leaders.
At an ECOWAS summit on Thursday in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, West African heads of state announced decisions that went back on an agreement with Sanogo, calling for the soldiers to get out of politics completely and return to their barracks.
Since then the atmosphere between ECOWAS meditators and the junta has been tense.
Sanogo said on Sunday that he rejected the decisions made in Abidjan, which included a plan to send ECOWAS troops to Mali to protect the president's and prime minister's office. Sanogo called for ECOWAS leaders to respect the earlier agreement.
Meanwhile, the country is also battling insecurity in the north where separatist rebels have declared independence, and militants are trying to impose strict Islamic law.
Human Rights Watch in a report Monday said armed groups and soldiers in the north have committed war crimes during the recent conflict. It said it had documented crimes by separatist Tuareg rebels, armed Islamist groups, Arab militias and Malian government forces, especially in the first two weeks of April. Tuareg rebels raped young girls, Islamist militants carried out public floggings and government forces arbitrarily detained ethnic Tuaregs, it said.
"The commanders of these groups need to stop the abuses, ensure discipline over their fighters, and appropriately punish those in their ranks responsible for these crimes," said Corinne Dufka, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Tuareg separatist fighters and Islamic militants took advantage of the chaos caused by the coup in Bamako last month to quickly advance and capture the three main towns in the north of Mali at the end of March. Mali government forces fled south without putting up any major resistance.