People gather in protest against the recent military coup, in Bamako, Mali, Monday, March 26, 2012, with one protester holding a sign reading 'Return to constitutional order'. About a thousand demonstrators protested Monday in Mali's capital to demand a return to constitutional order days after mutinous soldiers claimed power in a coup.(AP Photo/Harouna Traore)
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali's coup leaders said Monday they are partially reopening the West African nation's main airport even as demonstrators marched in the capital to protest last week's putsch and demand a return to constitutional order.
Junta spokesman Lt. Amadou Konare warned demonstrators to "exercise prudence" on Monday, which marked the 21st anniversary of the last coup in this nation of 15.4 million at the bottom of the Sahara desert. He also said on national television the airport would be partially reopened from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m.
"The Malian airspace is open only for civilian transport from today," he said, without giving further details.
Soldiers in Mali led by a middle-ranking U.S.-trained officer, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, surrounded the presidential palace on Wednesday and announced that night they were taking power in this vast and impoverished nation, likely disrupting plans to hold an election in April in which the incumbent, President Amadou Toumani Toure, was not going to run. He has not been heard from since the coup.
About a thousand demonstrators, including members of youth movements and political parties, gathered in central Bamako on Monday to demand a return to constitutional order. Some of the youth groups threatened to march on state TV and radio headquarters, which are under the junta's control. In the end, they did not march on the building, which has been reinforced by mutinous soldiers.
The crowd chanted "down with Sanogo" and "liberate the ORTM," referring to the public broadcaster.
Several politicians addressed the crowd, including Soumaila Cisse, who was one of the favored candidates for the April 29 presidential elections, which are looking increasingly uncertain after the coup.
He said the military should return to protecting Mali, especially as Tuareg rebels are attacking towns in north Mali.
"The army is already responsible for the security of this country, here in Bamako and in the north," he said. "We demand the constitution be respected and the constitutional timing for elections be respected also."
Sanogo's ouster 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.
In Washington, President Barack Obama's administration on Monday cut off American aid to the government of Mali after the coup, saying military and other assistance would only resume when the nation's democratic government is restored. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. humanitarian and food assistance will continue for Mali's impoverished citizens.
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.
On Monday, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement that "condemns the forcible takeover" of Mali by mutinous soldiers. It called on them to "cease all violence and return to their barracks" and allow the country to go ahead with previously scheduled elections.
The Security Council said the upheaval in Mali is compounding problems in the region caused by drought, food shortages and the influx of workers and fighters leaving Libya after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.
Tuareg rebels formerly loyal to Gadhafi have taken advantage of the power vacuum to advance to the gates of the strategic northern town of Kidal. Government 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 Associated Press on Thursday.
Sanogo insists that 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.
Toure initially took power in a 1991 coup, but 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.