BAMAKO (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters marched on Mali’s presidential palace on Monday, paralyzing traffic in the capital Bamako in a demonstration against an internationally-backed accord to extend the mandate of civilian president Dioncounda Traore.
Some protesters at the gates of the palace shouted slogans in support of Captain Amadou Sanogo, the officer who led the March 22 military coup which unintentionally emboldened northern rebels to seize two-thirds of the West African country.
The protest, reflecting longstanding popular 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.
“There is no question of Dioncounda staying as president of Mali,” said Daouda Diallo, one demonstrator amongst a group marching up the hill towards the presidential palace.
A Reuters reporter said one of the capital’s bridges was blocked by a protester burning tires. Demonstrators chanted slogans hostile to the 15-state West African regional bloc ECOWAS, which threatened sanctions against Sanogo unless he allow Traore to remain in charge.
Traore is a labor activist turned political grandee 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.
“We don’t want Dioncounda” and “Down with ECOWAS” chanted some in the crowd, which remained peaceful.
“I am here because I am against Dioncounda. We don’t want him in charge,” said Bourama Sidy Coulibaly, another protester. “ECOWAS should not be meddling in Malian affairs.”
Resolving the political crisis in Bamako, where Sanogo had continued to wield influence despite officially stepping aside last month, is a pre-requisite 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.
ECOWAS has pledged to send a 3,000-strong force to Mali to help the country restore its authority in the north, now in the hands of a mix of forces, including Islamists.
But it has not made any commitment to actually send troops to fight in the north and its precise mandate remains under discussion.
Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra; Writing by David Lewis; editing by Mark John