Reports of a mutiny of soldiers in Mali have sparked fears of a possible coup d’etat in the unstable west African state.
Gunfire was heard on Tuesday at an army base about nine miles outside Bamako, the capital.
“Yes, mutiny. The military has taken up arms,” a security source in the city told Reuters news agency.
The scale of the mutiny was not immediately clear. A European diplomat said a relatively small number of members of the national guard, apparently angered by a pay dispute, had seized a munitions depot but were reported to have since been surrounded by other government troops.
A French military source said discussions were taking place between Mali’s army command and the mutineers.
However, the reports of violence at the base immediately prompted fears of a replay of the mutiny in 2012 that led to a coup d’etat which opened the way to Islamic extremists and ethnic separatists exploiting the chaos to seize swaths of territory in the north of Mali.
A Malian military spokesman confirmed that gunshots had been fired at the base in Kati, but said he did not have any further information. There has been no official statement from the office of the president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.
The magazine Jeune Afrique reported that Keïta was in a secure place along with his son and most of his ministers. However, scattered protests, reports of roadblocks manned by soldiers and an arson attack on a building owned by the minister of justice suggested a significant threat to the increasingly unpopular 75-year-old.
Keïta came to power in 2013 and won a second term as president in 2018. But there has been rising anger at government incompetence, endemic corruption and a deteriorating economy. Protesters took to the streets last month when the constitutional court overturned the provisional results of parliamentary elections held in March and April after Keïta’s party had performed poorly.
Keïta had hoped concessions to opponents and recommendations from a mediating delegation of regional leaders would help stem the tide of dissatisfaction, but the protest leaders have rejected proposals to join a power-sharing government.
There are widespread concerns that any instability will benefit extremists in Mali affiliated with al-Qaida and Islamic State. The insurgents have proved tenacious, growing in strength across the Sahel region despite the intervention of thousands of French forces, teams of US special forces, regional armies and one of the biggest UN peacekeeping deployments in the world.
An opposition politician in Bamako said Tuesday’s events had come as a complete surprise to him and his colleagues. “This is not some kind of thing organised with us,” he said.
Alexandre Raymakers, a senior Africa analyst at the risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said it was unlikely the mutiny was planned by political leaders close to the opposition but that their supporters might welcome any effort decision to remove Keïta.
“This remains a fast-moving situation, but initial indications point to the mutiny being within the national guard, with significant elements of the army still loyal to Keita … The mutiny is likely driven by a range of factors closely tied to the deteriorating military situation in central and northern Mali, rather than the ongoing political crisis,” he said.
The French and Norwegian embassies in Bamako urged their citizens to stay at home.
“Because of serious unrest this morning, August 18, in the city of Bamako, it is immediately recommended to remain at home,” the French embassy said.