Mali PM forced to quit as army strengthens grip

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Mali’s prime minister was forced to resign on Tuesday by the soldiers who staged a coup in March, underscoring the military’s continuing grip and complicating international efforts to help push Islamists from the north.

Once a beacon of democracy in West Africa, Mali has been mired in crisis since the coup, when ethnic Tuareg rebels and al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters took advantage of the chaos to seize the northern two-thirds of the arid nation.

Although the soldiers gave way to a civilian president and prime minister in April under international pressure, they have never been far from power and have shown their readiness to stamp their authority on divided and weak politicians.

Cheick Modibo Diarra resigned as prime minister hours after he was arrested trying to leave the country for former colonial power France and was brought to the ex-junta’s headquarters at a barracks in Kati, just outside Bamako.

“I, Cheick Modibo Diarra, hereby resign with my entire government,” a nervous-looking Diarra said in a short statement broadcast on state television early on Tuesday. Diarra is a former NASA scientist and Microsoft chief for Africa.

The officer who led the coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo, appeared on state television late on Tuesday to say his supporters had not used violence.

“We only facilitated it (the resignation),” he said.

“Some weeks ago he (Diarra) said if anyone wanted him to go, he would tender his resignation, not to the president, but to us. So yesterday, we saw that it was necessary for him to go,” Sanogo added.

Minutes later, a news presenter read a decree from interim president Diouncounda Traore appointing Django Cissoko, a former senior official in the president’s office, as the new prime minister.

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Fearing Mali has become a safe haven for terrorism and organized crime, West African leaders have signed off on a plan to send 3,300 soldiers to Mali to revamp its army and then support operations to retake the north.

But Diarra’s arrest and the fresh political turmoil it has created in Bamako could discourage international partners from backing the plan until civilian rule is strengthened.

“What is really clear now is that the military junta is the one that is in control,” said Gilles Yabi, head of the International Crisis Group’s West Africa program.

“They have the weapons, they have the force and they are taking control of the transition ... the immediate obstacle in the crisis in Mali is now in Bamako and not the north,” he said.

Sanogo has been repeatedly accused by his critics of political meddling since he stepped down and was given the task of overseeing reforms of Mali’s army.

A soldier in Kati said he witnessed a tearful Diarra being scolded by Sanogo for having brought shame to the country.

The junta’s involvement in the resignation provoked strong condemnation from the international community.

Mali's Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, a former NASA astrophysicist, attends a meeting with political figures from northern Mali, in Bamako, in this August 10, 2012 file photo. Diarra resigned on December 11, hours after he was arrested by soldiers while trying to leave the West African nation. Diarra's arrest and subsequent resignation will complicate efforts to stabilise Mali, where soldiers and politicians remain divided since a coup in March and where the north of the country is occupied by al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters. Picture taken August 10, 2012. REUTERS/Adama Diarra/Files

The United Nations Security Council in a statement warned it could impose targeted sanctions against those who “prevent the restoration of the constitutional order and take actions that undermine stability in Mali.”

France, the keenest of the foreign powers to see rapid military action against Mali’s northern Islamists, called on Tuesday for a new government to be set up under President Diouncounda Traore.

“These developments underline the need for the rapid deployment of an African stabilization force,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot told reporters in Paris.

Even before Diarra’s arrest and resignation, support for the military intervention plan was not universal.

Despite France’s desire to see military action against Islamist groups that include al Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM, the United States and the United Nations have expressed concern, saying the plan lacks necessary detail.

The United Nations said on Monday that Mali was “one of the potentially most explosive corners of the world”.

“Discussions at the Security Council were already difficult. Now they are even more so,” said a Bamako-based diplomat.

Some of Mali’s politicians support the idea of a foreign-backed military operation. The arrival of a foreign force in Mali might weaken the sway of the former junta.

The European Union on Monday approved a plan to send 250 trainers to revamp Mali’s military but stressed that the army would have to be under civilian authority.

“We need to continue to move forward on what the security arrangements are going to be to reinforce the legitimate military authorities in Mali,” Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman United States State Department, said. “And clearly they’re going to need more help.”

However others, including much of the military, are against a foreign troop deployment on Malian soil and say they need only financial and logistical support

Bakary Mariko, a spokesman for the former junta, said on Tuesday that the Malian army was ready to act even without international backing.

“We want the help of the international community but if it has to wait until September or until an undefined date, then the Malian army will act to free its territory,” he said.

Additional reporting by David Lewis and Bate Felix in Dakar, John Irish in Paris and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Writing by David Lewis and Joe Bavier; Editing by Andrew Heavens