Injured Mali leader flies home, faces challenges

BAMAKO Fri Jul 27, 2012 3:39pm EDT

Dioncounda Traore (R) is sworn in as Mali's interim president in the captial Bamako April 12, 2012. REUTERS/Marc-Andre Boisvert

Dioncounda Traore (R) is sworn in as Mali's interim president in the captial Bamako April 12, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Marc-Andre Boisvert

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BAMAKO (Reuters) - Mali's interim president returned on Friday from weeks convalescing abroad after he was beaten up by a mob, facing pressure to form a new government and authorize a foreign military intervention against rebels in the north.

Mali needs outside support to recover from twin crises sparked by a March coup in the capital that precipitated the rebel takeover of its northern zones, occupied by Islamists dominated by al Qaeda's North African wing, AQIM.

The head of the U.S. military's Africa Command (AFRICOM) has said AQIM is the militant organization's richest faction and the dominant force in the north.

Interim President Dioncounda Traore, who spent weeks in France recovering from injuries he sustained in May when a pro-coup mob broke into his presidential palace and beat him up, flew into Bamako's main airport in the early evening.

"I'm happy to come back on the soil where I was born. My health is improving from day to day," he said in a brief statement, as soldiers and police armed with AK-47s and wearing balaklavas kept watch.

He was accompanied by his wife and children, and a Reuters witness said the scars from his injuries were still visible as he spoke to reporters on the tarmac.

"I will answer all of your questions at the appropriate time. In life one must forgive," he said before he and his family were whisked away.

Initial statements from West African leaders that a regional force would be dispatched to help Mali retake its north have shifted to focus on resolving the simmering post-coup political crisis in the capital, where the military is accused of meddling despite having official stood aside in April.

END OF MONTH DEADLINE

West Africa's ECOWAS bloc has given Mali's political leaders until the end of the month to form a new government, replacing an interim team that has failed to stabilize a nation once seen as a model of democracy in an otherwise turbulent region.

"Mali needs to re-establish broad democratic legitimacy through a unity government whose task will be to first restore security in the south and then in the north," Laurent Fabius, France's foreign minister, said on in Niamey on Friday.

Underscoring the atmosphere of perpetual instability, New York-based Human Rights Watch this week accused soldiers loyal to the coup leader of having "disappeared" at least 20 soldiers who tried to challenge his authority.

The rights group said the security forces also have engaged in a campaign of intimidation against journalists, family members of detained soldiers and others deemed a threat.

Members of the junta have not responded to the allegations.

The March 22 coup was universally condemned abroad but the reaction in cotton- and gold-producing Mali was mixed, with some praising the removal of a political class they said was corrupt.

This pro-coup camp has broadly called for interim prime minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, a former NASA astrophysicist and political novice seen close to the former junta, to remain and they remain hostile to foreign military intervention.

But the anti-coup coalition has called for his replacement and is advocating strongly for it.

According to ECOWAS planners, once stability has been restored to the institutions in the capital, regional militaries will help revamp Mali's defeated military and look at helping it retake the north, however details remain sketchy.

(Additional reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Niamey and Kwasi Kpodo in Accra; Writing and additional reporting by David Lewis)

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