A group of prominent politicians in Mali have condemned the military takeover of President Amadou Toumani Toure's government just five weeks before a presidential election in which he was not taking part.
The politicians issued a statement Friday firmly condemning the coup as a “serious step backwards” for Mali. Presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubakar Keita was one of those who called for an immediate return to normality.
“The constitutional order should be immediately re-established. The electoral calendar must be maintained and the elections must take place at the initial date.''
The African Union earlier said Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure is safe, at an undisclosed location near the capital Bamako and is being protected by loyalists.
Coup leader Amadou Haya Sanogo said Friday that the military will step down once a new democratically elected president is in place, but he added that it may take any length of time. He said that President Toure would not be harmed, but declined to discuss his whereabouts.
In response, the AU suspended Mali's membership Friday at a meeting of its Peace and Security Council in Addis Ababa.
The United States and European Union also condemned the coup, while the EU and World Bank have both suspended development aid to Mali.
The United States warned Friday it could suspend some of its assistance to Mali if democracy is not restored.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said humanitarian aid, which made up more than half of the $137 million in annual U.S. aid to Mali will not be affected.
“Any U.S. assistance to the government of Mali beyond what we give for humanitarian purposes is at risk if we cannot get back to a democratic situation in the country.”
Soldiers took control of Mali's presidential palace late Wednesday, after expressing anger at President Toure's handling of an ethnic Tuareg rebellion in the north.
The Tuareg rebels pressed Friday with an offensive aimed at taking more government territory in the wake of the unrest.
A leader of the rebel MNLA told VOA that the rebels plan to advance toward areas held by the Malian army, including the towns of Kidal, Timbuktu, and Gao.
MNLA second-in-command Karim ag Matafa said the group wants to remove the government from what the rebels consider Tuareg land.
Our problem is not with a specific government, he says. Our problem is with the occupation of our country.
The coup took place just a few weeks before the president was due to step down at the end of his second term. Elections are scheduled for next month.
Sonny Ugoh, an official with regional bloc ECOWAS, told VOA Thursday the coup heightens insecurity in Mali. Ugoh said ECOWAS had been working with Mali's leaders to try to negotiate an end to the Tuareg uprising.
Well-armed Tuareg separatists started attacking army bases in Mali's desert in January, after many Tuareg fighters returned from Libya.
The United Nations refugee agency says the conflict has uprooted more than 190,000 people in and around Mali. Many soldiers have died in the conflict.
Tuareg nomads have launched periodic uprisings for greater autonomy in Mali and Niger.