BAMAKO Soldiers from Mali's ruling junta overran the main presidential guard barracks in the capital Bamako on Tuesday, striking a heavy blow to the loyalist unit that has been fighting since Monday to reverse a March coup.
Dozens of residents near the Djicoroni camp, scene of heavy shooting since late Monday, broke into applause when junta soldiers entered the deserted compound and fired their weapons into the air in celebration.
"The camp has fallen, it is empty and the red berets have left," a junta officer told Reuters, asking not to be named.
A Reuters witness said he counted at least 10 dead bodies in and around the camp, most wearing presidential guard uniforms. He said the wives of the soldiers that had been living in the barracks had fled to nearby mosques.
Members of the red beret presidential guard unit attacked important sites in and around Bamako late on Monday in an apparent attempt to unseat the military junta that has been in power since a coup on March 22.
At least 27 people have been killed in the fighting, which centered on the state television broadcaster, the airport and the main camps of the rival military factions, according to medical sources and Reuters witnesses.
The junta issued a statement early on Tuesday saying it remained in control despite the counter-coup, which it said was backed by foreign fighters. Sporadic gunfire continued to ring out in parts of Bamako by the afternoon, but it was not clear if it was fighting or in celebration.
Junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo said on state television the red berets should put down their weapons and hand themselves over to junta authorities. He also said he believed the counter-coup attempt was supported by foreigners.
"The events yesterday were probably (caused) by mercenaries from elsewhere with backing from some paratroopers," Sanogo, wearing a green beret and uniform and perched on a white sofa, said over state television.
France, Mali's former colonial ruler, said it was "extremely concerned" by the clashes and called for them to stop.
"Only by re-establishing civil order will the transitional government be able to deal with the situation it faces," a French foreign ministry spokesman said.
TRANSITIONAL GOV'T CALLS FOR CALM, HOPE
Sanogo's junta overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure on March 22 after an army mutiny driven by frustration over the government's handling of a Tuareg rebellion in the vast desert north that has since split the country in two.
The coup, which derailed an April election meant to replace Toure, has been internationally condemned. West African regional bloc ECOWAS has said it plans to deploy more than 3,000 troops to oversee a transition back to democratic rule.
The renewed clashes marked a serious setback for the gold-producing West African nation after the junta had agreed to an interim government as a first step to restoring constitutional order after the coup.
Hamadoun Toure, spokesman for the transitional government, urged Malians to remain hopeful.
"The prime minister and government would like to urge people to stay calm and invites them stay hopeful. The PM would like to reassure them that he was taking all measures to restore normality," he said on state television.
Speaking to a local radio station overnight, Sanogo said Monday's fighting broke out after he had sent some units to the presidential guard barracks to tell them that Malian forces should remain united during the transition.
"During the exchange between my guys and the paratroopers, some of them decided to battle us once and for all," he said.
"They tried to seize Kati (army base), take control of the radio and television and the airport. But we had been prepared. We managed to kill some and capture others. Among the captives there are foreign troops that we'll show on TV."
An official at the emergency services of the Gabriel Toure hospital in Bamako said they had recorded 11 dead by gunshots and about 30 wounded as of Monday night. Another doctor at a hospital in Kati said they had recorded six deaths.
Djibril Bassole, Burkina Faso's foreign minister and an ECOWAS mediator in the crisis, said the bloc had sent no troops to Mali yet - denying rumors in Bamako that the regional body had dispatched commandos to assist a counter-coup.
"No decision has been taken in that light," Bassole told Reuters by telephone from Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou.
He said planned talks in Ouagadougou between the junta and ECOWAS mediators on Tuesday had been cancelled because a plane sent the previous day to collect junta officials had not been allowed to land in Bamako.
"As ECOWAS mediators, we are still available to continue the dialogue, which will help Mali normalize its political institutions and bring the army to submit itself to the authority of a civilian government," Bassole said.
The director of Bamako's airport told Reuters on Tuesday that it had been shut due to the fighting.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris, Cheikh Amadou Diouara in Bamako, and Bate Felix in Dakar; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Michael Roddy)