Soldiers in Mali went on television yesterday and declared the takeover of the government after seizing the presidential palace, closing the country's borders and storming the state broadcaster, dealing a harsh blow to one of the few well-established democracies in the volatile Saharan region.
There was no sign of the President, Amadou Toumani Touré, as mutinous troops rampaged through his palace, looting TVs, computers and other valuables. The military coup comes just one month before elections in which Mr Touré was due to step down.
There were fears that it could help ethnic Tuareg rebels to advance on the capital, Bamako, in a bid to win a northern homeland – a conflict which has intensified since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya sent his Tuareg mercenaries back to their homeland.
A statement read out on television by an army spokesman, surrounded by armed soldiers in military fatigues, said the country was now under the control of the National Committee for the Re-establishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State, or the CNRDR. "The CNRDR has decided to assume its responsibilities by putting an end to the incompetent regime of Amadou Toumani Touré," said Amadou Konare, the spokesman.
He also said the army group was suspending the constitution, dissolving institutions and imposing a nationwide curfew.
Mali's government has been fighting an insurgency in the north of the country. Yesterday, the Reuters news agency reported a spokesman for the Tuareg rebel group, the MNLA, as saying that the situation in Bamako would "allow us to take advantage of the chaos to gain more ground".
There are also fears that the Sahara desert, which covers the northern half of the country, has become a training ground for a terror group linked to al-Qa'ida which has kidnapped and killed foreigners. The US has been training Malian troops in counter-terrorism tactics in order to fight rebel groups.
The coup began on Wednesday when fighting broke out in an army barracks near Bamako after the Defence Minister, General Sadio Gassama, made an official visit to the camp. Soldiers revolted when he failed to address the handling of the fight against Tuareg rebels, hundreds of whom have been crossing back over the border from Libya since the death of Gaddafi.
The intensified fighting has forced up to 200,000 people to flee their homes in the past two months, as the well-trained rebels move from village to village and clash with government forces ill-equipped to battle the rebellion.
When news reached Bamako that soldiers were advancing on the capital, businesses quickly shut and the streets became jammed with people trying to leave. Witnesses said they saw soldiers shooting into the air and there was widespread panic as people hurried to flee the city centre.
"Everyone was running in one direction," said Jens Schwarz, a freelance photographer who was near the state broadcaster's building when shooting began. "A taxi came full of military and weapons. The taxi stopped and unloaded the weapons to the military, who were stationed at a crossroads."
Shooting could be heard late into Wednesday night and by yesterday morning Bamako's roads were quiet as people stayed at home.
The military asked soldiers to stop firing into the air "as an expression of their joy" after some casualties from stray bullets were reported.
Sources close to President Touré said he might have sought refuge at the US embassy in Bamako. The Agence France-Presse news agency reported a military source as saying that "the President is in good health and in a safe location", without giving details of his whereabouts. American officials denied he was at the embassy.
Mali has seen two decades of democratic rule after Mr Touré, 63, who himself seized office in a military coup in 1991, handed power to civilians before winning democratic elections in both 2002 and 2007.