DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The nation of Mali is in turmoil. Within two short weeks, the apparently stable West African democracy has gone from preparing for presidential elections to a military coup. Neighboring countries are imposing a total embargo, demanding the coup leaders step down. Add to the mix a separatist rebellion in the north that has captured the fabled desert city of Timbuktu. From Mali's capital, Bamako, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Mali is a mess. Let me explain. The ousted president is in hiding, observing from the sidelines as his Sahara Desert nation unravels rapidly. Amadou Toumani Toure was about to step down during elections later this month, after serving his two-term limit. But then soldiers staged a coup.
The new junta blames the ousted president for mishandling the nomadic Tuareg rebellion in the north. But since the military came to power last month, the insurgency has deepened. Many blame Mali's troubles on the rebel fighters who've seized control of the northern half of country, demanding independence as the army retreats.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QUIST-ARCTON: Avoiding the blame game, other Malians are fervently praying that a solution will be found for this troubled nation. Twenty-five thousand gathered in a stadium in Bamako over the weekend, for a joint prayer rally, called by Christian and Muslim religious leaders.
Mahmoud Dicko heads Mali's Islamic High Council.
IMAM MAHMOUD DICKO: (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: Dicko says all Malians must reunite for peace. He's also calling on Mali's neighbors to help. But the regional West African Community, ECOWAS, has imposed tough diplomatic and financial sanctions, and ordered closed, the borders of landlocked Mali.
Regional presidents insist the soldiers who seized power must go, now. The coup leader, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, says he'll remain in office until the end of the transition and the holding of democratic elections.
CAPTAIN AMADOU HAYA SANOGO: My committee is staying. There will be a conventional government which will work throughout for the two big issues – the north Crisis and the peace agreement.
QUIST-ARCTON: That northern crisis is, of course, the rebellion in the Sahara Desert, where well-armed nomadic Tuaregs have routed the military and say they will declare an independent homeland they call Azawad. In the past few days, the rebels have captured all the strategic cities in the north, including historic Timbuktu.
Rebel spokesman, Moussa Ag Assarid, says they want to consolidate their authority over the region, then open ceasefire negotiations with the junta in Bamako.
MOUSSA AG ASSARID: Yes, we want to build a nation; mixed colored nation, black and white people, for our people in Azawad. We want to build a democracy.
QUIST-ARCTON: The Tuareg rebels – some who fought for Muammar Gadhafi in Libya, are allied to the Islamist group Ansar Dine, which wants Sharia law imposed in Mali. The regional al-Qaida franchise is said to freely operate drug trafficking and other smuggling rackets in the vast desert region. All this is causing alarm.
Thomas Dempsey is a former U.S. Army colonel and a professor at the Department of Defense's Africa Centre for Strategic Studies in Washington.
THOMAS DEMPSEY: You know, it's an interesting question to me, whether the coup is precipitating the problems in the north, or whether the problems in the north are really driving the coup.
QUIST-ARCTON: Dempsey and others say the situation is not cut and dried, nor is the Malian army's ability to control it. And they warn that the looming drought and possible famine are among other problems facing Mali. The West African community is threatening unspecified military action and has put a standby force on alert. The U.N. Security Council is set to hold a Mali crisis meeting later today.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Bamako.
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