Mutinying Malian soldiers say they have ended the rule of President Amadou Toumani Toure after seizing control of the presidential palace and the state television station in the West African nation.
In a statement read out on Malian state television on Thursday by a spokesman for the soldiers, who described themselves as the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR), the mutineers said they had dissolved institutions, suspended the constitution and imposed a curfew "until further notice".
"The CNRDR ... has decided to assume its responsibilities by putting an end to the incompetent regime of Amadou Toumani Toure," said Amadou Konare, the spokesman.
Captain Amadou Sanogo, whose title was given as president of the newly formed CNRDR, appeared on state television to urge calm and condemn any pillaging.
Heavy weapons fire had rung out in the capital Bamako early on Thursday and the mutineers, who complain they lack arms and resources to face an uprising by Tuareg fighters in the north of the country, forced the state broadcaster off the air.
International condemnation was swift with France suspending cooperation with its former colony while the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation expressed "extreme shock" at the coup in a country which had achieved democratic success in recent years.
In a statement issued by the White House on Thursday, the US called for the "immediate restoration" of constitutional rule in Mali, while the African Union condemned the actions of the soldiers.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN's secretary-general, called for calm and for grievances to be settled democratically in a statement released hours before the soldiers said they had seized power.
Defence minister 'held'
One of the mutineers told the AFP news agency that soldiers, who said they closed all borders of the country, had seized control of the palace and that Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, Mali's foreign minister, was among those being held.
The soldiers also said they had detained loyalist military chiefs at a barracks in the northeastern city of Gao.
A loyalist military chief told AFP that Toure, who was expected to step down after an election scheduled for April 29, was well and in a safe location.
Ayo Johnson, the founder and director of Viewpoint Africa, a citizen journalist hub, told Al Jazeera: "The soldiers need to find a peaceful way to resolve the problems with the government, but it appears that they are not going to back down and this is purely a coup.
"The rest of Africa will be quite upset and troubled, because the Mali issue with the rebels has been going on for nearly 20 years and never been truly resolved."
France, Mali's former colonial ruler, reacted by urging that elections be held as soon as possible.
"We are attached to respecting democratic and constitutional rules," Alain Juppe, the foreign minister, told Europe 1 radio.
"We ask that the constitutional order be restored; elections, they were scheduled for April, they need to take place as soon as possible."
Niakoro Yeah Samake, candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, said that the capital city of Bamako is “very calm” despite some “gunfire here and there”.
He added that he “…I strongly condemn the coup just because it just overthrew democracy. It just ended 20 years of democracy in Mali.”
Samake also said he was hopeful that next month’s elections will still be held.
Anger has grown in the army at the handling of a Tuareg-led rebellion that has killed dozens, forced about 200,000 civilians to flee their homes and exposed Bamako's lack of control over the northern half of the country.
Nii Akuetteh, an independent Africa policy analyst and researcher, said that the army had been unhappy with the availability of resources for some time.
"There is a segment of the army which has been criticising the president basically for one reason; many people in the army and the populace in the south of the country feel that the president has not armed the army properly and lost key garrisons in the north," Akuetteh said.
"They hold the view that the president is not fighting strongly enough."
Soldiers have for weeks appealed to the government for better weapons to fight the rebels, who are bolstered by fighters who had fought in Libya's civil war last year.
Toure is a former paratrooper commander who overthrew a dictatorship in a 1991 coup and relinquished power a year later before returning to office via the ballot box in 2002 and securing re-election in 2007.
He had said he would step down after presidential elections due to be held next month.
Mali has experienced growing instability in recent months as Tuareg fighters seeking to carve out a desert homeland in Mali's north made advances, including the seizure this month of the key garrison town of Tessalit by the Algerian border..
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|Liaquat Ali Khan|