BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Demonstrators forced their way into the office of Mali's interim president on Monday and attacked the elderly leader, who was later brought to a local hospital unconscious, a witness and an associate of the president said.
Dioncounda Traore was treated at the Point G Hospital for an injury to the head, said Sekou Yattara, a medical student there. The interim leader was not conscious when he arrived at the hospital though he regained consciousness later, Yattara added, explaining that he learned of the president's condition from the doctors treating him.
"He has been badly injured but the information I have is that his life is not in danger," said Iba N'Diaye, the vice president of Traore's party. "This was an attempt on his life."
Thousands of people descended on the presidential palace in Bamako on Monday morning, angry over a deal brokered by regional powers that extended the time Traore would stay in power.
The demonstrators carried sticks and branches from trees with which they hit portraits of Traore, others ripped photocopies of the interim president's photograph. One group carried a dummy wrapped in cloth lying on two long sticks, meant to represent Dioncounda's dead body.
Just months before it was to hold elections, Mali was thrown into chaos when soldiers staged a March 21 coup, driving the country's democratically elected leader into exile and reversing two decades of democratic rule in one of the only stable countries in this volatile patch of Africa.
Mali's neighbors reacted swiftly and the body representing nations in the region, the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, imposed strict sanctions until the junta agreed to restore the country's constitution in early April.
The constitution called for the head of the national assembly — Dioncounda Traore — to become interim president for a 40-day period, before new elections could be held. The 40-day window expired on Thursday, and ECOWAS wanted Traore's term extended for another year, in order to give the country time to properly plan elections. The junta leader agreed over the weekend to allow Traore's term to be extended in return for receiving a lifetime salary, and the status of a former head of state.
Even as officials on Monday were announcing the new deal, thousands of demonstrators allied with the soldiers that seized power poured into the streets, and made their way up the steep hill, known as Koulouba, where the presidential palace sits. It appears that they were able to penetrate the palace with the help of soldiers belonging to the junta.
An Associated Press reporter saw the protesters break into the palace, after the soldiers stationed at the entrance to the compound waved them in.
N'Diaye, the vice president of Traore's party, known by its acronym, ADEMA, said that the soldiers were complicit in the attack on the interim leader.
"It's our opinion that there must have been some complicity on the part of the security services. The presidential palace is not just any location. It is protected by soldiers," he said.
A journalist for a local newspaper, who was present during part of the attack, said she saw blood on the hallway leading to the leader's office.
"It was the soldiers that showed the protesters where Dioncounda's office was located. That's how the demonstrators entered the office of Dioncounda Traore," said Rokia Diabate, reporter for the daily Le Pretoire newspaper said. "I saw the blood in the hallway ... I saw one of his shoes was with the demonstrators and one of the protesters was brandishing a necktie that was full of blood, and that he said was Dioncounda Traore's tie."
She said the prime minister of the interim government came out to beseech the demonstrators to make room for the ambulance, so that Traore could be taken away. Late Monday, a receptionist at the Point G Hospital where he was treated confirmed that the leader had been sent home. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The soldiers who seized power in March were angry over the ex-president's handling of a rebellion by Tuareg nationalists in the northern half of the country. However, that rebellion only gained steam in the wake of the coup and the country is now effectively partitioned in two, with the northern half — an area as large as France — in the hands of Tuaregs and Islamist rebels.
While the junta continued to say that they had only seized power in order to address the botched military response to the rebellion, the junior officers quickly made themselves at home. Even after signing an agreement in April agreeing to step down, the junta leader continued to act as the country's de facto ruler. He held meetings with mediators from his increasingly well-equipped office inside the military barracks, where each passing week reporters saw construction crews adding new amenities, as well as pouring cement, updating the electrical wiring and hauling in new furniture.
At times it appeared that Mali had two administrations — a civilian one recognized by the international community but with little power, and a military one, with significant power but no recognition.
Although many in Mali are proud of the nation's democratic roots, a significant chunk of the population backed the putschists because of anger over the ex-leader's handling of the rebellion in the north and due to spiraling corruption.
Traore remains a divisive figure, because he was the head of the national assembly under the former president. He is seen as tainted by the cloud of corruption that hung over the former administration.
On the sidelines of the NATO summit in Chicago, French President Francois Hollande expressed concern over the violence in Mali.
"I learned during this summit that there was new unrest in Mali, and that the interim president Mr. Traore was injured," he said. "I reaffirm here that the process that ECOWAS initiated needs to be followed. And the legitimate leaders of the country need to be respected."
Associated Press staffer Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal and Jamey Keaten in Chicago contributed to this report.