Sikasso (Mali) (AFP) - Amadou Sanogo, a former army captain who staged a military coup in Mali in 2012, went on trial Wednesday charged with murdering 21 soldiers whose bodies were found in a mass grave.
Sanogo, who faces the death penalty, toppled president Amadou Toumani Toure as the country grappled with a rebellion by Tuareg people that eventually led the way to a jihadist takeover in its vast arid north.
"I'm in fine spirits. I was waiting for this day," Sanogo told AFP at the opening of the trial, which was held in a packed concert hall in Sikasso, 370 kilometres (230 miles) southeast of the capital, Bamako. The trial was adjourned until Friday.
After the March 2012 coup he proclaimed himself leader, saying the former head of state had failed to restore order. But within days, the military lost control of the cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, where jihadists razed ancient shrines.
The trial began hours after a failed suicide attack against Gao airport later claimed by a group led by one-eyed Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who last week was reported by a US official to have been slain in a French air strike.
Sanogo and 16 others, all of them formerly in the military, are accused of the abduction and killing of 21 elite "Red Berets," who were detained and forcibly disappeared between April 30 and May 1, 2012.
The "Red Berets" were accused of involvement in an April 30 counter-coup against Sanogo and his loyalists.
Among those facing the charges of assassination and kidnapping are a former defence minister and a former chief of staff.
The bodies were found in December 2013 in a mass grave near Sanogo's headquarters.
Mali regained control of the northern cities from the jihadists after a French-led international military intervention in January 2013, but insurgents remain active across large parts of the region.