Mali’s new interim president, who took over from coup leaders on Thursday, is threatening “total war” against the Tuareg and Islamist rebels who have seized half the country since the putsch three weeks ago.
Former Malian parliament speaker Dioncounda Traore took the oath of office in the west African nation at a ceremony on Thursday attended by, among others, junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, who initially grabbed power in the March 22 coup.
Mali’s new interim leader — a 70-year-old mathematician turned politician who speaks six languages — is expected to soon name a prime minister, and to organize elections within 40 days.
The mutineers justified last month’s coup by accusing the former government of mishandling the Tuareg rebellion — but their action allowed the Tuareg and Islamist militants to take over a vast area in the desert north, effectively splitting the country.
Amid the disarray in the capital, they captured an area the size of France, including the ancient town of Timbuktu, bringing lawlessness to an area already gripped by drought and acute food shortages.
The G8 rich nations voiced “deep concern for the deteriorating situation in northern Mali and the implications the current crisis has for the wider Sahel region, including the impending humanitarian crisis.”
A US Department of State spokeswoman said the US welcomed Traore’s inauguration as a positive step in the country’s political transition process, urging “all parties to facilitate the swift and complete restoration of civilian rule through free and fair elections.”
The African Union also applauded the handover of power to Traore.
However, the state department expressed deep concern at reports of human rights violations in the north. Meanwhile, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) foreign ministers met in Abidjan on Thursday to consider sending a regional force into northern Mali.
The rebellion there “constitutes a real obstacle to the peace process,” Ivorian Foreign Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan said after the meeting of the 15-nation group, which mediated the Mali power transfer.
The coup leaders, Malian -politicians and ECOWAS mediators are scheduled to meet in Burkina Faso this weekend to clarify the still murky management of the transitional period.
In Mali, five ministers and four other politicians of ousted Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure’s government were released on Thursday, according to Captain Moussa Dindo, who is close to the junta, and family members.
The nine had been held at the coup leaders’ headquarters, a military camp at Kati, near the capital Bamako.
Many of the Tuareg rebels, who have fought several separatist campaigns over the years, are heavily armed and battle-hardened from last year’s Libyan conflict where they fought as mercenaries for slain Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Joined by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, they made unprecedented gains in the weeks since the coup.
The main Tuareg rebel group, Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), has declared an independent state, a call rejected by the international community and by the MNLA’s former Islamist allies.
Ansar Dine, the Islamist group that controls several key towns, has imposed Shariah law in some areas under its influence and distanced itself from the Tuareg nationalist cause.