The United Nations said Friday it had gained access to Mali’s ousted president while rebel soldiers announced the release of two other leaders held in a dramatic coup this week.
The gesture coincided with mounting international pressure on the junta and preparations for celebratory rallies in the capital Bamako following the latest putsch in the troubled West African country.
“Last night, a team from MINUSMA #HumanRights went to #Kati in the framework of its mandate to protect human rights and was able to gain access to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and other detainees,” the UN peacekeeping mission said.
Rebel soldiers seized Keita and other leaders after staging a mutiny on Tuesday at Kati, a military base about 15 kilometres (nine miles) from Bamako.
A member of the junta, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it had authorised a UN human rights mission to visit all 19 prisoners in Kati, including Keita and Prime Minister Boubou Cisse.
The source added that the junta had released former economy minister Abdoulaye Daffe and Sabane Mahalmoudou, Keita’s private secretary.
“Two prisoners have been released. There are still 17 in Kati. This is the proof that we respect human rights,” the junta member said.
The reported release came shortly before mass rallies, staged by a protest coalition that had been demanding Keita’s resignation, to “celebrate the victory of the Malian people.
The rebel soldiers named their organisation the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, under the leadership of a 37-year-old colonel named Assimi Goita, and vowed to create a transitional council and stage elections “within a reasonable time”.
The international community has joined African leaders in condemning the fragile Sahel state’s latest putsch and demanded the detained leaders be freed.
Keita and Cisse are being held in a villa in Kati and are without a television, radio or phone, while the others are in a training centre, where they are sleeping on mattresses and watching television, according to witnesses to the visit.
The 75-year-old ousted president “looked tired but relaxed,” they said, describing his conditions as “acceptable.”
– ‘Transition’ pledge –
The coup — the second in just eight years — deals a body blow to a country struggling with a jihadist insurgency, moribund economy and deep public resentment over its government.
A putsch in 2012 was followed by an insurrection in the north of the country which developed into a jihadist insurgency that now threatens neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.
Thousands of UN and French troops, along with soldiers from five Sahel countries, have been deployed to try to stem the bloodshed.
The junta’s spokesman, Ismael Wague, said on Thursday that “a transitional council, with a transitional president who is going to be either military or civilian” would be appointed.
The transition “will be the shortest possible,” he told France 24 television.
Those detained, according to various sources, include Defence Minister Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele, Security Minister M’Bemba Moussa Keita, the president of the National Assembly, Moussa Timbine, as well as the heads of the army and air force.
.– ‘Dangerous for democracy’ –
Leaders of the 15-nation West African regional group ECOWAS on Thursday demanded Keita be restored as president and bluntly warned the junta that they bore “responsibility for the safety and security” of the detainees.
The leaders also announced they would dispatch a high-level delegation “to ensure the immediate return of constitutional order”.
Other African leaders on Friday added to condemnation of the coup and reiterated demands for the detainees’ release.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta urged a “speedy, peaceful and democratic” resolution of the crisis while DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi described the coup as “dangerous for democracy in Africa” and African countries should take a firm line, the African Union said.
Keita won election in a landslide in 2013, putting himself forward as a unifying figure in a fractured country, and was re-elected in 2018 for another five-year term.
But he failed to make headway against a jihadist revolt that has left swathes of the country in the hand of armed Islamists and ignited ethnic violence in the country’s volatile centre.
Thousands of people have died and hundreds of thousands have fled their their homes.
Anger swelled after the disputed outcome of legislative elections in April, leading to the creation of the anti-Keita protest coalition, the June 5 Movement.