BAMAKO/ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Jets carrying West African presidents for a meeting with Mali’s new military leaders were forced to turn back mid-flight on Thursday after hundreds of supporters of last week’s coup invaded Bamako’s main runway.
An official from regional bloc ECOWAS said the meeting, aimed at pressuring coup leaders to swiftly restore constitutional rule after they ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure, could be rescheduled for Friday if security allowed.
“It was called off after the junta allowed demonstrators onto the tarmac,” the official said, asking not to be named. “Understandably this created a security scare forcing the heads of state to suspend their arrival.”
Pro-junta protesters at Bamako airport, some carrying banners reading “ECOWAS, let us solve our own problems” and “ECOWAS, shame of Africa”, streamed onto the runway before junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo persuaded them to leave.
Mali’s neighbors say they are ready to use sanctions and possible military force to dislodge its new army leaders. The United States and former colonial ruler France have condemned the coup.
Five leaders - from Ivory Coast, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Liberia - gathered at Abdijan airport on Thursday to discuss the next step. The sixth member of the planned delegation, Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan, remained in Nigeria, sources said.
“They might return (to Mali) tomorrow if the conditions are auspicious,” the ECOWAS official said. “A lot depends on what they decide in Abidjan and the discipline of the junta in complying with the minimum security requirements.”
Rival camps of hundreds of youths, some supporting and others opposing the junta, clashed in downtown Bamako on Thursday, throwing rocks at each other and burning cars and motorcycles.
Political and civil society groups opposed to the junta called a rally to coincide with the arrival of the ECOWAS leaders and to hash out a plan to add pressure on Sanogo.
Mali’s coup, seen as a major setback to fragile democratic gains in Africa, was triggered by army anger at President Toure’s handling of a Tuareg-led rebellion in north Mali that has gained ground in recent weeks.
Toure, president since 2002, was planning to hand over power following elections set for April.
The northern rebels, who are using weapons smuggled from ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenal to carve out a desert homeland, have said they plan to use coup chaos in Bamako to attack more towns, including Timbuktu.
A resident of Kidal, one of the biggest towns in Mali’s north, told Reuters that heavy weapons fire had erupted on Thursday morning on the town’s outskirts.
“There is firing from both sides,” said a Malian soldier in the town by telephone. Another soldier said the army had pushed back a rebel assault and was preparing for another.
ECOWAS defense chiefs met Mali’s junta on Wednesday in advance of the planned heads of state visit. A diplomat said the talks went poorly, without giving details.
Additional reporting by Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diarra in Bamako, Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan, and Kwasi Kpodo in Accra; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Louise Ireland