Jets carrying West African presidents for a meeting with Mali’s new military leaders were forced to turn back mid-flight Thursday after hundreds of supporters of last week’s coup invaded Bamako’s main runway.
On board the jets were the President of ECOWAS and Cote d’Ivoire’s leader, Alassane Ouattara; Presidents of the Republic of Benin, Boni Yayi; Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; Burkina Faso, Blaise Campaore; and Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou.
The sixth member of the delegation, President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, did not make the trip.
An official from ECOWAS said the meeting, aimed at pressuring the coup leaders to swiftly restore constitutional rule after they ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure, could be rescheduled for today if allowed.
“It was called off after the pro-coup demonstrators invaded the tarmac,” the official said, asking not to be named. “Understandably this created a security scare forcing the heads of state to suspend their arrival.”
Hundreds of supporters of coup leader, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, stormed the airport runway, chanting: “Shame on ECOWAS. Mali is for us.” The trip cancellation is reported to be a diplomatic blow to the aspirations of the regional leaders to compel the coup plotters to revert constitutional powers to ousted President Toure .
Sanogo was also reported to have managed to persuade supporters to move and allow the plane touch down but the West African leaders had already turned round.
Cote d’Ivoire’s Minister of African Integration, Adama Bictogo, who had flown in earlier, was also quoted to have said: “The meeting in Bamako was cancelled for security reasons.
“When we arrived this morning, we saw that the security hadn’t been organised and that hundreds of people had managed to get on the tarmac. This prevented the plane from landing, and there was hostility in the air.”
Mali’s neighbours said they are ready to use sanctions and possible military force to dislodge its new army leaders. The United States and former colonial ruler France have condemned the coup.
“They might return (to Mali) tomorrow (today) if the conditions are auspicious,” the ECOWAS official said. “A lot depends on what they decide in Abidjan and the discipline of the junta in complying with the minimum security requirements.”
Rival camps of hundreds of youths, some supporting and others opposing the junta, clashed in downtown Bamako yesterday, throwing rocks at each other and burning cars and motorcycles.
Political and civil society groups opposed to the junta called a rally to coincide with the arrival of the ECOWAS leaders and to hash out a plan to add pressure on Sanogo.
Mali’s coup, seen as a major setback to fragile democratic gains in Africa, was triggered by army anger at President Toure’s handling of a Arab Tuareg-led rebellion in North Mali that has gained ground in recent weeks.
Toure, president since 2002, was planning to hand over power following elections set for April.
The Northern Arab nomads, who are using weapons smuggled from ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenal to carve out a Arab Islamic state, have said they plan to use coup chaos in Bamako to attack more towns, including Timbuktu.
A resident of Kidal, one of the biggest towns in Mali’s North, told reporters that heavy weapons fire had erupted yesterday morning on the town’s outskirts.
“There is firing from both sides,” said a Malian soldier in the town by telephone. Another soldier said the army had pushed back a rebel assault and was preparing for another.
ECOWAS defence chiefs met Mali’s junta on Wednesday in advance of the planned heads of state visit. A diplomat said the talks went poorly, without giving details.
Ouattara who supported to war in Libya that is now having devastating consequences in Mali said on Wednesday stated that Mali’s democracy could not be abandoned.
“We cannot allow this country endowed with such precious democratic instruments, dating back at least two decades, to leave history by regressing,” he said, adding, “It’s why Mali needs to immediately return its democratic institutions to normal.”