BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali's U.S.-trained coup leader said Saturday he is in control of the country, has no fears of a countercoup and wants peace talks with the rebels whose northern rebellion was the trigger that led him to oust a democratically elected president.
Capt. Amadou Sanogo, who appeared exhausted, his voice hoarse, stressed the importance of unity for the West African nation in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press at Kati garrison outside Bamako, the capital. What started there Wednesday as a mutiny of low-ranking officers and rank-and-file soldiers turned into a full-blown coup d'etat.
"Tuareg people in the north, Arab people, are our brothers. ... I want all of them to come to the same table right after this interview, my door is open, we should talk about this process," Sanogo said.
Sanogo's ouster Wednesday of President Amadou Toumani Toure just five weeks before he was to step down after presidential elections threatens the cause of democracy in a region prone to coups and jeopardizes Mali's standing at the heart of the Western-backed fight against Africa's thriving wing of al-Qaida.
The European Union, the World Bank and the African Development Bank all have suspended aid because of the coup, and the African Union has suspended the country's membership. The United States is considering suspending all but humanitarian aid.
"Right now I'm in control of all the country," Sanogo, 39, said confidently.
But rebels seeking to create a separate state in northern Mali for the nomadic Tuareg people have taken advantage of the power vacuum to advance to the gates of the strategic northern town of Kidal. Soldiers are deserting by the dozens while others are retreating without a fight amid disarray in the army command, a senior rebel commander told the AP on Thursday. The rebels are led by battle-hardened colonels who fought in the army of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi before returning home heavily armed.
Mali's land borders and airspace remained closed Saturday, trapping thousands of visitors including three African foreign ministers who were there for a meeting. The country has been under a curfew since the coup.
Sanogo would not say where Toure is, or even if he knows his whereabouts.
"As a soldier, I have my secrets," is all he would say.
Pushed about whether Toure is protected by any soldiers, he said "Not even one."
He was contradicted by one officer who told the AP that a handful of the red-bereted parachutists who made up the presidential guard remain with the toppled leader. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The African Union also said Thursday that it has information that Toure is safe, under the protection of Red Berets at a location not far from Bamako.
Sanogo, however, claimed the Red Berets were with him, and at least three soldiers in his office at Kati garrison sported red berets.
The putschists have also arrested at least three Cabinet ministers, but the whereabouts of Defense Minister Gen. Sadio Gassama are unknown.
Sanogo says he acted Wednesday to avert a national security crisis because the government was not providing the arms and ammunition needed to fight the rebels, who have killed scores of soldiers.
On Friday, state radio and TV went dead for about an hour and troops set up barricades around its downtown headquarters, raising speculation that a countercoup was in progress. Rumors coursed that Sanogo was wounded, even dead.
But the television station flickered back to life, and later showed Sanogo in a room of soldiers wearing different uniforms and berets, which the coup leader said indicated they were members of the police, the paramilitary gendarmerie and the Red Berets. It was a show of unity meant to dispel reports of a divided army.
When asked about a countercoup, Sanogo calmly responded: "To be honest, I don't fear."
The Africa Command of the U.S. Defense Department confirmed that Sanogo received basic officer training in the United States as well as participating in several other training programs there.
State TV and radio on Saturday repeated warnings for soldiers to stop the pillaging that began Friday, when soldiers were stealing everything from people's cars to bananas being sold by vendors on street corners.
State TV and radio were also broadcasting a communique urging gas stations to reopen. They had closed because soldiers had been ordering their vehicles refilled without payment.
Saturday morning, major stores and the city's downtown market remain shuttered. People fearful of more trouble rushed around small grocery stores and roadside vendors to stock up on food supplies. Cars returned to the streets as the looting subsided.
Sanogo played down any chaos.
"People are starting with their daily life, the market is open, transportation has been going on now. I believe I am getting closer to what I promised to my people," he said.
But he has offered no clear agenda.
"I'm scared to say it but it must be said: We can never put our confidence in a young soldier with a gun," said Kalifa Keita, 30, who was buying goods from a street vendor in downtown Bamako. "The problem is that these things take time to resolve, and that makes me afraid."
This week's coup represents a major setback for the nation of 15.4 million at the bottom of the Sahara desert. Although Toure initially took power in a 1991 coup, he became known as the "Soldier of Democracy" because he handed power to civilians, and retreated from public life. Years later he re-emerged to win the 2002 election and was re-elected in 2007.
A dozen candidates were running in the April 29 vote, which is now in jeopardy.
Faul reported from Niamey, Niger. Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed from Bamako, Mali.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects name of President. It's Amadou Toumani Toure. Not Ahmadou Toumani Toure. For global distribution.)