BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Days have passed since Mali's interim government made a formal request to neighboring nations for military help to try to take back the country's north, which fell to Islamist rebels after a coup five months ago.
But in a bizarre twist, the Malian government is refusing to confirm to its own people that it has made the regional appeal. Confusion in the capital, Bamako, is growing and heightening the perception that the soldiers who led the March coup — but were then pressured into handing power back to civilians — are still calling the shots.
There has been no mention on state TV of the formal request to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). And four days after the request for military help was confirmed by France, and after reporters from several news organizations were leaked copies of the official document, presidential spokesman Diarra Diakite said he had nothing to say on the matter, and that he had not seen the request.
"I myself have not seen this request, and if I had I would have sent it out for publication in the press," Diarra told The Associated Press Friday. "Up to this moment, I haven't seen it and so please don't ask me, as I don't know anything about it."
A copy of the request dated Sept. 1, which was seen by AP, shows that Interim President Dioncounda Traore asked the West African regional bloc of 15 nations to provide five battalions to try to take back the north. Mali is also asking for air support to destroy rebel bases in their remote hideouts, as well as to gather intelligence.
Traore also asked for help in restructuring the Malian army, including training infantry and artillery units, and logistical support including de-mining equipment and water purification systems to be used in the field.
For months, the international community has been pressing Mali to make the formal request for military help so that regional leaders can ask the U.N. Security Council to send forces into the country. France and the United States have expressed deep concern about the north becoming a base for international terrorism. Two rebel groups control the immense territory, and both have ties to al-Qaida's affiliate in North Africa.
But Mali did not make the request, apparently because the soldiers who led the March 21 coup in the capital refused to accept a foreign force, fearing that it would curtail their influence.
The coup leader, Capt. Amadou Haya Sonogo, is supposed to have stepped aside, but many believe he still exerts influence. On Twitter this week, rumors spread that Sanogo is against the request for military help.
A civilian who was hired by the junta in April to help run the parallel government they had created inside their barracks told AP on Friday that the putchists had not been informed of Traore's request. The news of the request first reached the Kati barracks near Bamako, from where the coup was launched, via media reports, he said.
"The problem is how this information reached the men," said the official, who requested anonymity because the junta had not authorized him to speak to the press. "It came to us in this bizarre fashion — we heard about it when France confirmed it. So (the question is) ... why did the presidential palace not respond to this publicly? This is what is sowing disorder and confusion in the heads of people."
A military official close to the junta, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that the interim president had made the request without the consent of the soldiers who led Mali's recent coup. He said that Sanogo was holding a high-level meeting at Kati on Friday in order to decide what to do next.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot confirmed, in an online briefing on Thursday, that Mali had made the request to the regional bloc. France called it "an indispensable step" which was needed for the Security Council to authorize a military operation in Mali.
On Sept. 26, world leaders will meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly to discuss the issue of Mali and a possible intervention force, said the French official.
However, Malian officials gave mixed messages even after traveling to neighboring Ivory Coast to discuss the formal request with Ivorian leader Alassane Ouattara, the current head of ECOWAS. The request for the military intervention seen by AP was addressed to Ouattara.
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Baba Berthe, Traore's secretary general, said management of the situation in Mali was "beyond the capabilities" of Malian authorities.
"When a problem is a problem which is going beyond borders, the problem needs a solution from beyond borders," he said. "President Traore asked me to come to solicit the support of the sub-region, ECOWAS, and Cote d'Ivoire to handle this problem."
Asked about the possibility of a military campaign to reconquer the north, however, Berthe hedged and said that the situation is still in the "negotiation phase," and that any "military phase" would occur only after negotiations had failed. "The negotiation phase always precedes the military phase," he said, adding a military operation would "not be applicable" if negotiations were successful.
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Robbie Corey-Boulet also contributed to this report from Abidjan, Ivory Coast.