By Baba Ahmed and Rukmini Callimachi Associated Press
BAMAKO, Mali — Soldiers arrested Mali’s prime minister and forced him to resign before dawn on Tuesday, showing that the military remains the real power in this troubled West African nation despite handing back authority to civilians after a coup in March.
The prime minister’s ouster comes as the United Nations considers backing a military intervention in Mali, a once-stable country now in constant turmoil. By late Tuesday, a new prime minister had been named, but the developments drew international rebuke and raised questions about the viability of the military operation, which would use the country’s military to try to take back Mali’s north from Islamic extremists.
Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra, dressed in a dark suit, his expression somber, appeared on state television at 4 a.m. to announce his resignation, hours after soldiers stormed his house.
“Our country is living through a period of crisis. Men and women who are worried about the future of our nation are hoping for peace,” he said on television. “It’s for this reason that I, Cheikh Modibo Diarra, am resigning along with my entire government on this day, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. I apologize before the entire population of Mali.”
The 60-year-old Diarra is a NASA astrophysicist who has contributed to numerous space exploration missions including the Magellan probe to Venus and the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter. He is now under house arrest, said a spokesman for the junta, Bakary Mariko.
The government remains technically under the control of the interim president, Dioncounda Traore, who waited nearly 24 hours after Diarra’s arrest to address the nation. Late Tuesday, he issued a decree naming a longtime civil servant, Django Sissoko, as the new prime minister. And in an oblique speech, he spoke of the need for Mali to remain united in its goal of reconquering the north and installing democracy, never mentioning the military.
The shake-up in Bamako is already looking like it may endanger plans for the military intervention. The African Union is proposing sending several thousand African troops to help the Malian military take back the north, which fell to al-Qaida-linked Islamists in the chaos that followed the March 21 coup.
The military’s meddling in state affairs has concerned the international community. Many worry that supporting the operation will simply further arm and embolden the very officers responsible for Mali’s current state.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned Tuesday that Diarra’s forced resignation makes Western countries wary of getting involved in a military incursion.
“One thing is clear: Our offers of help come with the condition that the process of restoring constitutional order in Mali be conducted credibly,” he said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called Diarra’s arrest a setback for Mali. “We need Sanogo and his brothers-in-arms to stay out of politics,” she told reporters, referring to coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo.
The U.N. Security Council threatened to impose sanctions against those blocking a return to constitutional order in Mali and called on the armed forces to stop interfering in state affairs.
The now-ousted prime minister was arrested between 10 and 11 p.m. Monday at his home by the military, who drove him the Kati military camp, the sprawling base where the March 21 coup was launched.
Late Tuesday, Sanogo said on state television that he had no regrets over the prime minister’s resignation. But he denied that the military forced him out, saying simply that his soldiers “facilitated” his departure.
At the moment of his arrest, the aging leader was getting ready to leave for the airport for a medical trip to Paris, said a police officer who was on duty at the airport and who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
“The plane that was to take the prime minister to France was on the point of departure,” said the policeman. “It was stopped by people from the Yerewoloton group who invaded the airport,” he said.
Yerewoloton is a civic group believed to be backed by the junta which has carried out violent actions on the military’s behalf. This same group in May invaded the presidential palace and beat Traore, the interim president, until he lost consciousness.
That incident brought the international community down like a hammer on Mali’s junta. Sanogo signed an accord agreeing to step down and retreated from public life. Despite his retreat, there were numerous signs suggesting that the junta still called the shots in Bamako.
On state television Tuesday, Sanogo accused Diarra of pursuing his personal ambitions rather than the good of the country.
“We didn’t force him. We facilitated (his resignation). A few weeks ago, he himself told us that if we really wanted him to leave, that he would hand in (his resignation) but not to the president of the republic, nor to any other authority — only to us,” said Sanogo. “Yesterday we realized that it was really necessary for him to resign. And it’s for this reason that we brought him to Kati.”
Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for West Africa, Corinne Dufka, said the events fit with the pattern of abuse by soldiers since the coup eight months ago.
“They’ve arrested, beaten and intimidated journalists; tortured and disappeared military rivals; and now, apparently, arbitrarily detained the prime minister. None of these incidents have been investigated and those responsible appear to have been emboldened by the shameful lack of accountability,” Dufka said.
Bamako remained calm Tuesday, despite waking up to what is being called a “mini-coup.” People went about their daily lives, yet with a sense of disappointment in this nation once held up as a model democracy in Africa.
“I really am struggling to understand — so if the prime minister is not doing his job properly, it’s up to the junta to come and arrest him?” said Aboubacrine Assadek Ag Hamahady, a university professor. “Based on what law, on what legal text can the junta justify this arrest?”
Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin, Don Melvin in Brussels, Bradley Klapper in Washington, Edith Lederer at the United Nations and Jamey Keaton in Paris contributed to this report.