The West African nation of Mali has experienced a military coup as renegade members of the national Army claim to have ousted ruling President Amadou Toumani Toure.
In a statement delivered on Malian state television on Thursday by a spokesman for the soldiers, who have called themselves the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR), they said they had dissolved institutions, suspended the constitution and imposed a curfew "until further notice".
"The CNRDR ... has decided to assume its responsibilities by putting an end to the incompetent regime of Amadou Toumani Toure," said Amadou Konare, the spokesman.
In video footage now circulating on YouTube, Captian Amadou Haya Sanogo, who is emerging as the leader of the CNRDR, appeared on Malian TV to announce an immediate curfew and appeal for calm after hours of gunfire overnight in the capital, Bamako.
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Since the 1990s Mali has been known for being one of the most stable democracies in west Africa. Sanogo was a previously little known middle-rank solider in Mali's army.
A spokesman for the CNRDR said it would oversee a transition back to democratically elected power.
"The CNRDR … has decided to assume its responsibilities by putting an end to the incompetent regime of Amadou Toumani Toure," said Amadou Konare.
"We promise to hand power back to a democratically elected president as soon as the country is reunified and its integrity is no longer threatened," he said.
However, the whereabouts of Toure remained unclear.
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"The president is not in the palace, the soldiers have taken him to another location," said Cheick Oumar Sissoko, leader of Mali opposition party African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence. "We think he has been taken to another military base."
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The soldiers said the coup was necessary because of the mishandling of an insurgency in the north.
The spokesman for the soldiers, Lieutenant Amadou Konare, said in a communique that the troops had taken the country's security into their own hands "due to the inability of the government to give the armed forces the necessary means to defend the integrity of our national territory".
A soldier at the presidential palace said the presidential guard had failed to defend the palace against the renegade soldiers. They have seized control of the seat of government, but could not find democratically elected leader president Amadou Toumani Toure, who is in hiding.
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The West African regional bloc ECOWAS said it "strongly condemns the misguided actions of the mutineers." The group said it was "all the more reprehensible, coming amidst the ongoing regional and international efforts to seek a peaceful solution to the rebellion in the north of the country."
The soldiers' declaration also came just hours after the presidential palace had rushed to deny that a coup was in progress, issuing a Tweet that said: "There is no coup in Mali. There's just a mutiny."
The latest developments mark a major setback for one of the region's few established democracies. The ousted president came to power himself in a 1991 coup, but was hailed for handing power to civilians. A decade later, he won the 2002 democratic election. The 63-year-old Toure was due to step down next month after two, five-year terms.
His whereabouts were unknown on Thursday. Contacted by telephone, a soldier at the palace said that the president's bodyguards had failed to fight the renegade soldiers, who burst in. They searched the grounds looking for him, but could not find Toure.
Young soldiers on motorcycles were shooting in the air Thursday morning in the capital of Bamako. Businesses remained shuttered and there was little traffic as most stayed home following the coup announcement.
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