Soldiers loot in Mali after coup, AU says president safe
BAMAKO, March 23 (Reuters) - Soldiers looted petrol stations and hijacked cars in Mali's capital Bamako on Friday, 48 hours after a military coup, as the African Union said it had assurances that President Amadou Toumani Toure was safe.
The AU also suspended Mali's membership after the coup, which has left the West African nation in limbo and jangled nerves in a region already suffering aftershocks from last year's Libyan war.
"We have been told that the president is safe, protected by a certain number of loyalists," AU Commission head Jean Ping told reporters after a meeting of the bloc's Peace and Security Council in Addis Ababa.
"The president is in Mali for sure. The assurances we are getting from those that are protecting him is that he is not far from Bamako," Ping said.
The coup's leaders have sought to capitalize on popular dissatisfaction at Toure's handling of a rebellion by northern nomads. But they looked isolated as a coalition of parties condemned the coup and urged new elections, which before Wednesday's events had been scheduled for April.
"The signatories ... condemn this forceful takeover which is a major setback for our democracy," 10 parties including ADEMA, the largest in parliament, said in a joint declaration.
Amadou Sanogo, the army captain named as leader of the mutineers, told Africable television on Thursday that he would not hold on to power but refused to give a time frame for restoring civilian rule.
Sanogo, who says he has had training from U.S. Marines and intelligence, said there had been efforts to arrest Toure.
Residents in Bamako said looting had caused shortages, and fuel prices have doubled to over 1,300 CFA francs ($2.60) a liter in about 24 hours.
"I am a driver but there is no fuel for the car, I do not even have fuel for my bike to go back home," said Youssouf Diawara as he queued with other motorists for petrol.
Although most shops, petrol stations and businesses were closed some residents ventured out in search of necessities.
"People are afraid because of the soldiers. Often (they take) what is in the car or they make you get out and take the car or sometimes the soldiers themselves just break into shops," said Bamako resident Adama Quindo.
Civilians joined in the looting of a warehouse by soldiers, according to Reuters television.
"Bread is becoming scarce, I made a mistake this morning, I should have bought more," said another Bamako resident.
Mali, flooded with men and weapons after Libya's civil war, was already facing a food crisis, the Tuareg-led rebellion, and a growing Islamist threat when Sanogo's soldiers took over.
REBELS THRUST SOUTHWARDS
Tuareg-led MNLA rebels in northern Mali, aiming to capitalize on confusion in the distant capital, pushed south to occupy positions abandoned by government forces, sources said.
Sanogo said he was ready to negotiate with the rebels but that his aim was to maintain Mali's territorial integrity.
"That's (negotiations) what I want - because I want a united Mali in which all can prosper," he said in an interview with French RFI radio aired on Friday.
A Malian officer in the northern town of Kidal said rebels had occupied the military camp in Anefis, 100 km (60 miles) to the southwest, after government forces withdrew.
The MNLA said on its website that it had taken Anefis, which lies on the Gao-Kidal highway, after Malian troops abandoned their positions and withdrew to Gao.
The MNLA, whose numbers have been swollen by Malian Tuaregs returning from the ranks of Libya's army, have been fighting since mid-January for an independent north. They have pushed government soldiers out of remote towns but have not yet threatened the regional capitals of Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao.
Diplomats and officials believe Toure is being protected by a pocket of loyalist soldiers. The U.S. embassy denied widespread rumors the president was being sheltered there.
Toure, 63, a former paratrooper who seized power in 1991, had gained the nickname 'Soldier of Democracy' in Mali and had been preparing to cede power in April after an election.
Mali's neighbors, the United Nations and world powers from Paris to Washington called for a return to constitutional rule. Regional body ECOWAS said it would not recognize the junta.
The World Bank and African Development Bank on Thursday condemned the military coup and suspended funds to Mali.
U.S. aid group Millennium Challenge Corporation suspended operations in the country on Thursday, while the European Commission also suspended development operations.
The United States warned Mali's coup plotters on Friday that they were risking U.S. economic aid - which runs to about $140 million a year - but stopped short of joining the European Union and immediately suspending assistance to what has been a key African partner in the fight against Islamic extremism.
"A little more than half of that is humanitarian aid of food, etc, so that would not be affected. But if the situation is not resolved democratically, the remaining portion of that aid could very seriously be affected," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.