BAMAKO Mali's caretaker president Dioncounda Traore was beaten up and hospitalized after hundreds of protesters stormed his palace on Monday to demand his resignation, officials and protesters said.
A spokesman for the soldiers behind a March 22 coup said Traore's close-protection officers had killed three people in the attack, in which protesters entered parts of the palace compound unopposed and tore up pictures of Traore.
Mali is struggling to cope with the aftermath of the coup and a subsequent rebellion in its desert north. Sanogo agreed at the weekend to drop objections to Traore remaining in charge but crowds encouraged by pro-coup politicians took to the streets on Monday calling for him to quit.
Resolving the political crisis in the capital Bamako is a prerequisite for foreign help in efforts to retake control of the north, now in the hands of separatist and Islamist rebels, including some al Qaeda fighters.
"He (Traore) has just been rushed to hospital ... They beat him seriously and tore his clothes," Bakary Mariko, spokesman for the CNRDRE body of soldiers who last month formally agreed to allow a transition back to civilian rule, said by telephone.
"There were three dead and some injured by gunshot ... Dioncounda's security shot at people," he said, adding that protesters left the palace by mid-afternoon.
Sekou Sidibe, a witness, said Traore received injuries to the face and had been escorted to hospital by bodyguards. An aide to Traore said later he had left hospital and returned to his personal residence. It was not immediately clear when he would return to the palace compound.
"I am ashamed to relate what happened this morning," interim Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra told state television later.
"Let us get on with our work and stop encouraging the youth to march and commit such reprehensible acts," he added in an appeal to local politicians who have sided with the putschists.
Gerard Araud, permanent representative of France to the United Nations and one of a group of U.N. Security Council envoys currently touring West Africa, said the new unrest raised further concerns about Mali's efforts to win back stability.
"They have been put in considerable danger by these latest developments and it may be necessary to consider other paths," Araud told reporters in Ivory Coast, without elaborating.
SOLDIERS STOOD BY AND WATCHED
Earlier, soldiers at the Malian presidential palace stood by as the civilians entered buildings on the compound while others clambered over armored vehicles parked nearby. Some protesters parked their motorbikes and bicycles in rooms in the palace.
The protest, reflecting longstanding frustrations with Mali's political class, came despite Sanogo agreeing at the weekend to let Traore remain in charge for a year to oversee the full transition to civilian rule in return for securing the status and privileges accorded to former heads of state.
Traore is a labor activist turned politician who before his appointment last month as caretaker president was national parliament speaker. He held various ministerial jobs in the 1990s and is seen by his critics as part of a self-serving political elite that has misruled the country for years.
The coup was launched by soldiers complaining about lack of resources to fight northern rebels but it unintentionally emboldened the insurgents to seize two-thirds of the country.
"There is no question of Dioncounda staying as president of Mali," said Daouda Diallo, one demonstrator amongst the group that marched up the hill to the presidential palace.
Demonstrators chanted slogans hostile to the 15-state West African regional bloc ECOWAS, which had threatened sanctions against Sanogo unless he allows Traore to remain in charge.
ECOWAS has pledged to send a 3,000-strong force to Mali to help it restore its authority in the north, but it has not made any commitment to actually send troops to fight in the north and its precise mandate remains under discussion.