CONAKRY, Guinea (AP) — Representatives from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS were meeting with the government of Guinea on Tuesday in order to decide what to do with a container of arms destined for Mali, which was shipped to Guinea's port, according to officials.
Abdoul Kabele Camara, the minister in charge of national defense, said that the shipment was intercepted around a month ago at the port of Conakry, Guinea's sea-facing capital which is situated on Africa's Atlantic coast. The arms, he said, appear to have been ordered by Mali's ex-President Amadou Toumani Toure, known by his initials "ATT," who was ousted in a coup in March.
Although an interim government is nominally in power in the Malian capital Bamako, Camara said that officials in Guinea were worried about allowing the arms to be transferred to Mali, which shares a land border with Guinea.
The northern half of Mali has fallen into the hands of a mixture of al-Qaida-linked extremist groups. While the south, which is accessible from Guinea, is technically being led by the interim government, a soldier who led a March coup is still believed to hold sway.
Human Rights Watch recently published an in-depth report, detailing horrific abuses carried out by soldiers loyal to the coup leader, including the sodomy of prisoners.
"It's true that these arms had been ordered by the former President ATT," said Camara, the Guinean defense minister. "But in these conditions — he is no longer there — we couldn't take the risk of putting these arms in the hands of an unknown quantity. So we took what I think is a good decision, and that is to alert ECOWAS. The representatives of ECOWAS are here, and they plan to verify the arms. I would like them to be present when we do an inventory of what is in the container."
Camara said he could not say where the ship had come from, only that he thought it was from somewhere in Eastern Europe. He said the container has not been fully opened and that he cannot provide details on the kind of arms that are inside.
Security forces have been deployed in order to guard the shipment around the clock.
ECOWAS, which stands for the Economic Community of West African States and represents the nations in West Africa, has been lobbying the United Nations to mount an armed intervention to take back Mali's north.
Different versions of this plan included a role for the Malian military, which would lead the offensive. For that to happen, they would likely need more arms. The block that has been placed on the arms shipment in Conakry is evidence of the deep unease with which Mali's neighbors view the current government, and especially the leader of the recent coup who remains influential in the military.
Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo signed multiple agreements vowing to step aside after the March 21 coup. Each time, mediators from ECOWAS were forced to return to Mali for further talks after it became clear that Sanogo was still pulling the strings.
For the past few months, he has mostly disappeared from public view, though ECOWAS member countries remain deeply suspicious of him.
Associated Press Writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.