Plans for an international intervention to recapture northern Mali from Islamic radicals have been thrown into doubt after the Prime Minister appeared on television today to resign after being arrested by the same cabal of army officers who led a coup in March.
Cheick Modibo Diarra, an astrophysicist, was brought into the government to give a civilian face to the military junta after it seized power, but in recent months he has fallen out with key constituencies in the increasingly volatile West African nation.
Mr Diarra, who rose to prominence at Nasa and Microsoft, had attempted to distance himself from the coup leaders by backing calls for an international intervention force to seize back the northern half of the country, taken over by separatists and Islamists earlier this year.
The 60-year-old was detained at his home on Monday night on the orders of Captain Amadou Sanogo – the officer who led an army mutiny that toppled the previous government. Soldiers smashed in the door of his house and took him away "a bit violently", according to one witness.
After making a show of handing power back to a civilian government under the threat of international sanctions, Captain Sanogo and the other coup leaders have remained in de facto control of the capital, Bamako.
They have carried out a number of late night arrests of those seen to challenge their authority and stood by while a mob badly beat the other symbol of civilian power, President Dioncounda Traoré, at his residence in April.
In a halting statement which regional observers equated with a "second coup", the resigning Prime Minister told viewers: "Men and women who are worried about the future of our nation, you are hoping for peace. It's for this reason that I, Cheick Modibo Diarra, am resigning along with my entire government."
The forced resignation comes in the same week that the United Nations declared northern Mali to be "one of the potentially most explosive corners of the world".
The UN has been considering whether to lend its backing to an African Union-planned military force made up of 3,300 soldiers from the region and backed with logistical support from the US and former colonial power France. That plan foresaw using the same army that has now twice overthrown civilian authorities.
Mali, a fledgling democracy with a rich cultural tradition and a number of Unesco heritage sites such as the historic city of Timbuktu, has been hit by what security experts have called a "perfect storm". The Sahel country was caught in the backwash of Tuareg men and guns that flowed out of Libya after the fall of Colonel Gaddafi. Their return reignited a moribund rebellion and shattered the status quo in Mali. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) overran Malian forces using heavy weapons and declared a separate Tuareg homeland.
The Tuareg rebels were soon displaced by two Islamist groups – Ansar Dine, which holds Timbuktu and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) in the other main city of Gao. Both groups have links to al-Qa'ida in the Maghreb (Aqim) and have since imposed a strict form of sharia law.
Discussions at the UN this week were expected to see France push for a rapid intervention to seize back towns and cities from the Islamists, with the US – which has been sceptical as to whether a small force could hold the desert north – arguing for a gradual approach starting with negotiations. Any intervention will now be delayed as the world waits for a new government in Bamako.
Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, a member of the UN Security Council, said today: "One thing is clear: Our offers of help come with the condition that the process of restoring constitutional order in Mali be conducted credibly."
Mali: A country divided
Mali is a vast, landlocked West African nation in the heart of the Sahel, a region threatened by drought and desertification.
This year was meant to see a new government take over from one that had been losing control of the northern deserts. Instead, a coup by disgruntled soldiers and a separatist uprising left the country divided.
The design of Mali by the former colonial power, France, left the Tuareg minority of the north under the notional control of an often hostile south.
Decades on from independence, there has been no development in desert areas and the Tuareg community has rebelled against its marginalisation. Peace agreements were reached and then ignored by the capital, Bamako.