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West African leaders discuss Mali crisis

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West African leaders have gathered at a summit to discuss the turmoil in crisis-hit Mali after soldiers who overthrew an elected government in March repelled a counter-coup earlier this week.

Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are meeting in Senegal's capital Dakar on Thursday to discuss the political crisis in Mali as well as that in coup-hit Guinea Bissau.

ECOWAS has has been mediating for a return to civilian rule in Mali since the March coup. The junta has handed power to a transitional government since then, though its troops remain highly visible.

Mali's capital has been tense since soldiers loyal to ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure attempted to stage a counter coup on Monday.

Hospital officials said at least 22 people were killed in fighting between Toure's loyalists and soldiers behind the earlier coup.

Two days after the attempted coup, gunfire was again heard in the tense capital Bamako on Wednesday.

The leader of the March coup has blamed the counter-coup on "foreign elements backed by dark forces from inside the country".

'Institutions not undermined'

Cheick Modibo Diarra, the interim prime minister, said in a televised statement: "We have witnessed an attempt to destabilise the country these last 48 hours, which resulted in a temporary, not yet complete, victory for our army and our security forces.

"There are still some civilian and armed elements on the loose, which justifies the massive presence of our armed and security forces in the city of Bamako."

He said there was "a persistence ... in attempts to destabilise the country" but told citizens: "Stay calm, there is no reason to panic."

Said Djinnit, the United Nations Special Representative for West Africa, condemned the latest violence, which he said "could only serve to complicate an already difficult transition".

Djibril Bassole, Burkina Faso's foreign minister, whose country has played a key role in negotiations with the coup leaders, said the offensive launched on Monday night was an "unfortunate incident."

But it "does not undermine the institutions. The interim president is still in place, the institutions remain in place," he said.

Even though the junta is technically no longer in power, it has made its influence felt. 

West African leaders fear that the area - a drought-stricken region, long plagued by arms and drug trafficking and kidnappings - will become a haven for fighters planning attacks across the region.

A delegation from the ex-junta on Wednesday met in Burkina Faso with President Blaise Compaore, the ECOWAS mediator for Mali, for talks that were expected to touch on the precarious situation in the north.


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