Mali’s president and prime minister were arrested by soldiers late on Monday in what international powers called an “attempted coup” in the west African country at the heart of the fight against jihadism in the Sahel.
The arrests came after a cabinet reshuffle that left out key members of the military junta that took over In a coup last August.
The United Nations, African Union, France and the US called for the immediate release of transitional President Bah N’Daw and prime minister Moctar Ouane in a joint statement that called the arrests an “attempted coup”.
“The reckless action carried out today carries with it the risk of weakening the mobilisation of the international community in favour of Mali,” the group said.
The move by members of the junta, which had technically been “dissolved” even though it remained the most powerful faction in the transitional government, threatens elections promised for February.
The Economic Community of West African States, the regional bloc that is expected to be sending a delegation to assist the transition process on Tuesday, also condemned the arrests. The US state department called for their “immediate, unconditional release”.
Mali depends largely on international support for what little stability it has — a 13,000-troop UN peacekeeping force, thousands of trainers and aid workers from the EU, international NGOs and other allies, and roughly 5,000 French counterterror troops who cover the entire Sahel.
Instability in the country has grown since France intervened to crush a jihadist insurgency that captured northern Mali in 2013, with violence spreading to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso. The conflict, along with widespread perceptions of corruption and neglect, led to weeks of mass protests against then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita last year, which culminated in a coup on August 18.
The mid-level military officers who led the coup agreed, after international and domestic pressure, to set up a transitional government that would return the country to civilian rule within 18 months.
But fears of persistent military influence were confirmed when coup leader Colonel Assimi Goita was appointed vice-president, and the rest of the cabinet was filled out with other members of the junta.
N’Daw is an ex-colonel and defence minister who had served under Keita and as an aide to former dictator Moussa Traore. His arrest came just hours after a new cabinet was announced that did not include defence minister Sadio Camara or interior security minister Modibo Kone, both key junta supporters.