Soldiers have stormed the state TV and radio station in Mali, as fears of a possible coup gripped the West African country in the wake of a military mutiny that spread from a garrison in the capital of Bamako to one thousands of kilometres away.
The sound of heavy weapons rang out Wednesday and trucks carrying soldiers were seen fanning out around the building housing the state broadcaster. Television screens went black across the landlocked nation for roughly seven hours, coming back a little before midnight to announce that a government statement would soon be issued.
Throughout Africa, coups usually begin with the seizing of national television, and the population was on edge. The presidential palace rushed to deny that a coup was in progress, issuing a tweet, saying: "There is no coup in Mali. There's just a mutiny."
The mutiny began Wednesday morning at a military camp in the capital, during a visit by Defence Minister Gen. Sadio Gassama. In his speech to the troops, the minister failed to address the grievances of the rank-and-file soldiers, who are angry over what they say is the government's mismanagement of a rebellion in the north of the country by Tuareg separatists.
The rebellion has claimed the lives of numerous soldiers, and those sent to fight are not given sufficient supplies, including arms and food.
Recruits started firing into the air, according to a soldier who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press. By afternoon, soldiers had surrounded the state television station in central Bamako, and by evening, troops had started rioting at a military garrison located in the northern town of Gao.
State television goes dark
A freelance journalist from Sweden who was driving to her hotel near the TV station at around 4 p.m. local time said that trucks full of soldiers surrounded the building.
"We saw a couple of trucks, with military on them. They came and started setting up checkpoints. There were military in the streets, stopping people. People were afraid," said Katarina Hoije. "When we reached our hotel which is just in front of the TV station, there were lots of military outside, and more cars kept arriving — pickup trucks with soldiers on them."
She said that they set up two machine-guns facing the building. Soon after, TV stations throughout the capital went black. There was no signal on state radio.
The soldiers who took part in the attack said they want to pressure the government to listen to their demands, and not to overthrow the landlocked nation's democratically elected leaders. But in the capital which has weathered multiple coups, the population was rattled. Businesses closed early and office workers rushed to get home.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: "The situation is currently unclear and unfolding quickly. We understand that radio and television signals are dead. There are reports of military forces surrounding the presidential palace and movement of vehicles between the palace and the military barracks."
UN chief calls for peace
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for calm and for grievances to be resolved peacefully and within the democratic process, according to UN deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey.
In the strategic northern town of Gao, located over 3,000 kilometres from the capital, the mutiny started at sundown at a military base just outside the city. A military student who was at the base and who asked not to be named out of fear for his safety said that the young recruits started shooting in the air. They then took hostage four to five of their senior commanding officers, and sequestered them, saying they will not release them until their demands are met.
They then began going door-to-door looking for the commander of the camp, a general who is in charge of operations against the Tuaregs, said the student.
The general was nowhere to be found and by nightfall, the soldiers had broadened their search beyond the barracks to the town of Gao, located six kilometres away.
The Tuareg uprising that began in mid-January is being fuelled by arms left over from the civil war in neighbouring Libya. Tens of thousands of people have fled the north, and refugees have spilled over into four of the countries neighbouring Mali due to the uprising.
The government has not disclosed how many soldiers have been killed, but the toll has been significant. In February, military widows led a protest. In an attempt to diffuse tension, the Malian president allowed himself to be filmed meeting the widows, who publicly grilled him on his handling of the rebellion.