Mali Rebellion Fighting On Two Fronts

There's a separatist rebellion raging in the desert north of Mali, and the junta leaders, who seized power last week, have the double task of grappling with the insurgency while fending off global condemnation of their coup. From the capital, Bamako, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports this includes the threat of crippling sanctions by Mali's West African neighbors.

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Turning to West Africa now where a separatist rebellion is raging in the desert north of Mali. The rebel leaders who seized power last week are now grappling with an insurgency and fending off global condemnation of their coup. From the capital, Bamako, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has this report.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo is the new man in charge of Mali. The English-speaking officer received military training in the U.S. Sanogo is at pains to tell the world he has no intention of holding onto power after democratic elections. The question is when.

CAPT. AMADOU HAYA SANOGO: We're going to decide together to have a good, credible election in order to elect a Malian president - not from one side as it used to be. And then we'll go back to our base.

QUIST-ARCTON: Sanogo's explanation for their March 21 coup, which has tarnished Mali's democratic credentials, is that ousted president, Amadou Toumani Toure - himself a retired military general and coup leader - failed to equip the army with the weapons and resources it needs to put down the northern rebellion. Since the military takeover, nomadic Tuareg insurgents, with sophisticated weapons, have rapidly captured even more strategic territory.

Many have returned to Mali from fighting for Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Alongside their Islamist allies, the rebels have today besieged the fabled desert city of Timbuktu. Captain Sanogo justifies the rebel advances, saying the army's strength has been sapped over the past decade.

SANOGO: What this army couldn't do in 10 years, I can't do in 10 days. But I tell you what, I'm here for that, and I said it again, it's my priority. And I will put every effort, I will ask everyone, I will ask for any single contribution to make this better, and I will. It's my promise.

QUIST-ARCTON: Speaking to NPR this afternoon, Captain Sanogo says while the junta consults with all Malians, he remains the unelected head of state.

SANOGO: Until the end of the transition. It's not because the committee and Amadou Sanogo want it, but it's what Malians at any level wants and it's what my society want and my army.

QUIST-ARCTON: And Mali's new military leaders have supporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

QUIST-ARCTON: Chanting long live the Malian army and down with the traitors, civilians have taken to the streets in recent days to demonstrate their backing for the coup. This young medical doctor, who chose to remain anonymous, says Malians are suffering and were fed up of the deposed government's mismanagement of the insurgency in the north. She hopes the junta will do better.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through translator) It's the first time I'm really proud of Mali and of Africa. Honestly, I'd given up on Mali. It's only now, with the military in power, that I've regained some hope, and I want all Malians to feel the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

QUIST-ARCTON: Sanogo has promised to immediately restore Mali's 1992 constitution. Whether that's enough to convince a tough talking West African community, we should know by tomorrow. That's when the three-day ultimatum issued by regional presidents expires, calling for the soldiers to step down. Otherwise, they could face an economic and diplomatic blockade, and possible military force. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Bamako.

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