Mali coup leader apologizes for 'mistakes'

BAMAKO Thu Jun 27, 2013 7:21am EDT

BAMAKO (Reuters) - The Malian army captain who led a coup last year that plunged the West African nation into crisis and allowed al Qaeda-linked fighters to seize half the country has apologized to the nation for his actions.

Addressing a ceremony meant to reconcile army factions, Captain Amadou Aya Sanogo said events that led to former colonial power France dispatching thousands of troops to halt the Islamist advance were "an accident".

Once portrayed as a model democracy, Mali imploded last year when the president was ousted and a mixture of Tuareg separatists and Islamist rebels occupied its desert north.

Though a French-led offensive launched in January broke the Islamists' grip on northern Mali, the wider region now faces a threat that has been scattered across the Sahel.

"Above being soldiers, we are humans and we make mistakes without meaning to," Sanogo said late on Wednesday in comments addressed to interim President Dioncounda Traore, dozens of members of the government, religious leaders and the heads of the Mali's most important families.

"We dare to hope that our apologies will be accepted," the U.S.-trained officer said.

Islamist and separatist rebels launched attacks on Mali's army in early 2012. But shortly after Sanogo's coup, the rebels seized Mali's three northern regions in as many days as the thin line of resistance crumbled alongside the chain of command.

Sanogo, who drew support from Malians who said years of elections had failed to deliver concrete progress to the poor nation, handed over power soon after the March 22 coup.

But soldiers kept on meddling in politics and fighting among themselves, stalling national and regional efforts to retake the north.

Al Qaeda-linked gunmen occupied northern Mali for the rest of the year, recruiting and training locals and jihadis from abroad, until the French military intervention in January forced them to flee into the desert and across borders.

United Nations peacekeepers are due to start taking over security duties next week. Preparations for an election on July 28 are behind schedule, prompting fears of a chaotic poll.

(Reporting by Adama Diarra; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Alistair Lyon)