Mali junta says counter-coup defeated

The soldiers who staged a putsch in Mali five weeks ago said Tuesday they had defeated an overnight counter-coup by foreign-backed forces loyal to ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure.

Gunfire had erupted at the national television and radio station, the airport and at the garrison town near the capital Bamako that is the headquarters of the rebel soldiers led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo.

An employee of the TV and radio station, which had been held by rebel soldiers since the March 22 coup, told AFP that "there were deaths" in the gunfight, without giving casualty figures.

The resurgence of fighting dimmed hopes for a quick return to order in the west African country where political chaos has allowed Tuareg rebels and Islamists to seize swathes of the vast desert north.

A soldier reading out a message on television on behalf of Sanogo said "foreign elements backed by dark forces from inside the country carried out these attacks," adding that some of them were arrested.

The coup leaders, under intense regional and international pressure, have allowed a civilian interim government to take over but have kept making arrests, which witnesses said sparked the latest violence.

The fighting followed an attempt by junta loyalists to detain Abidine Guindo, the former chief of staff of toppled president Toure. Guindo was the head of the "Red Berets" presidential guard.

After an evening during which gunfire echoed through the capital, Sanogo declared early Tuesday in a message that scrolled across the screen of state television that "the situation is under control."

An AFP reporter and witnesses nevertheless heard heavy gunfire at around 1000 GMT near the loyalist base in central Bamako, though it was unclear who was shooting.

The coup leader said his troops were in control of the airport, the state TV and radio station and the Kati army barracks, the headquarters of the junta troops some 15 kilometres (nine miles) from the capital.

A statement repeatedly broadcast by the private Kayira radio station and attributed to Sanago deplored the presence of "mercenaries" and "foreign troops" fighting alongside the Red Berets.

Despite the junta's assurances, there was confusion in Bamako.

Early in the night, a regional diplomatic source indicated that the Bamako airport was under the control of loyalist forces.

The situation remained unclear near the headquarters of the TV and radio station, which had been partly controlled by the presidential guard before renewed firefights, local media said.

By all accounts, the fighting centred around Kati.

The road between Bamako and the Kati camp was blocked by elements of the loyalist forces who diplomats said had surrounded the city.

"Obviously, there is a coup against Sanogo" attempted by supporters of Toure, said a government source in a neighbouring country.

When the renegade soldiers staged their coup on March 22, shortly before scheduled elections, their power grab shattered the country's image as a democratic success story in the region.

Under diplomatic pressure from Mali's partners and military pressure from the advancing rebellion in the north, the junta agreed to hand power over to Dioncounda Traore, the former parliament speaker.

Traore was sworn in as interim president on April 12, but the situation in the country has remained volatile.

In the north, an area the size of France is now in the hands of Islamist militias and Tuareg separatist rebels, many of them battle-hardened and well-armed after serving as mercenaries in the Libyan conflict.

The regional grouping ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, has mediated the handover to a civilian government and pressured the junta to return to the barracks, with mixed success.

Captain Sanogo on Saturday rejected a plan by ECOWAS leaders to send troops to oversee the transition period, and also nixed their demand for elections in Mali within 12 months.

A meeting that had been planned for Tuesday between an ECOWAS mediator, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, and a delegation of the former junta was cancelled, a source close to the mediators said.

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