BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The whereabouts of Mali's president were unknown Friday, a day after mutinous soldiers declared a coup, raising fears and prompting uncertainty in a West African nation that had been one of the region's few established democracies.
Even though the sound of gunfire had ceased in the capital, stores remained shuttered Friday and the streets were empty because a nationwide curfew remained in effect. Uncertainty gripped this landlocked nation of 15.4 million as people tried to find out the identities of the soldiers that suddenly appeared on state television Thursday, announcing a coup d'etat.
Late Thursday, the coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo gave an interview on state television in which he said that President Amadou Toumani Toure was in good health, but refused to say where he is, or even if he is being held by the putschists.
"For the moment, I will not tell you where President Amadou Toumani Toure is," he said. "He's very well. He's safe. As far as us — I already told you yesterday that our objective is not to physically harm anyone."
Toure is himself a soldier who came to power in a 1991 coup. He was hailed for handing power to civilians. He won the democratic election in 2002.
Baffling for many is the fact that Toure was due to step down next month at the end of his second term. Instead, soldiers angry over his handling of an insurgency in the country's north stormed the palace. He has not been heard from since.
Elections were slated for April 29; that now looks increasingly unlikely.
Sanogo also assured the public that the ministers that have been detained by the junta were safe and will not be hurt.
"And I assure you that no one will physically hurt any of them, but as long as I remain at the head of this movement ... they will however need to go before a competent court," he said, suggesting that they will be tried.
The coup began with a mutiny at a military camp outside the capital, where soldiers were angered by a speech delivered by the country's minister of defense, who failed to mention the plight of troops killed in the country's new insurgency.
Large numbers of soldiers have lost their lives in the uprising which began in January in the impoverished nation. Their widows have not been compensated. They accuse the government — and especially Toure — of sending them to the battlefield without the proper equipment, and without even enough food.
The ethnic Tuareg separatists have fought on and off since Mali's independence from France in 1960 to carve out a homeland in the country's northern desert. The latest wave of violence is being fueled by an influx of arms from Libya and by the return to Mali of Tuareg mercenaries who fought on the side of ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.