West African mediators arrive in Mali seeking reversal of coup

BAMAKO/LONDON (Reuters) – Mediators from West Africa’s regional bloc arrived in Mali on Saturday for talks aimed at reversing a coup that has been condemned abroad, but celebrated by many in a country battling an Islamist insurgency and simmering political unrest.

After three days of calm in the capital Bamako after Tuesday’s ouster of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, police used tear gas on Saturday when a scuffle broke out between a group of 50 pro-Keita protesters and local residents who threw stones, an eyewitness told Reuters.

The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has taken a particularly hard line on the coup. The bloc quickly shut borders and ended financial flows this week – a move diplomats said was as much about warning opponents at home as stabilising Mali.

“They cannot tolerate this taking place. They are taking it very personally. It is on their doorstep and they think they are next,” one regional diplomat said.

The presidents of Ivory Coast and Guinea are among those pushing for a tough response, another diplomat said, as both have faced violent public protests to their third-term bids and want the bloc to show it will not tolerate power grabs in its own backyard.

All eyes are on the visit by an ECOWAS delegation led by Nigeria’s former President Goodluck Jonathan.

“We’ll continue to engage Malian stakeholders until lasting peace is found,” Jonathan said in a tweet shortly after landing at Bamako airport on Saturday afternoon.

A junta of military officers has controlled the country since Tuesday, when the mutineers detained Keita at gunpoint and forced him to resign. They have promised to oversee a transition to elections within a “reasonable” amount of time.

The ECOWAS delegation is due to meet the coup leaders, who call themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), and visit Keita and other detained senior officials among other meetings, according to a provisional schedule seen by Reuters.

The ouster of Keita, known as IBK, has been welcomed by many in Mali, which was rocked by months of protests calling for his resignation over alleged corruption and worsening security in areas where affiliates of al Qaeda and Islamic State are active.

“Reinstating IBK is out of the question. The only thing they (the delegation) can achieve is the transition. Under the rules of ECOWAS, ECOWAS should midwife the transition,” the second diplomat said, referring to the outcome of the delegation’s talks.

On Friday, thousands of the coup’s supporters gathered in a central square in Bamako to celebrate the takeover. There is no outward sign ECOWAS’s suspension of financial relations is yet being felt.

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