By David Lewis
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Mutinous soldiers attacked Mali's presidential palace on Wednesday in an apparent coup attempt in the West African country, defense ministry and diplomatic sources said.
Heavy weapons fire rang out in the capital Bamako and the mutineers, angry at the government's handling of a rebellion in the Sahara desert north, forced the state broadcaster off air after seizing parts of the capital Bamako.
"We now know it is a coup d'etat that they are attempting," a defense ministry official said, asking not to be named. A diplomat confirmed the clashes at the presidential palace.
Anger has been growing within the army at the handling of a Tuareg-led rebellion that has killed dozens of people and forced nearly 200,000 civilians to flee their homes.
While soldiers had been urging the government to provide better weapons to fight the rebels, bolstered by fighters who had fought in Libya's civil war, one of the mutineers said they now wanted to oust President Amadou Toumani Toure.
"He needs to leave power, that is all. The movement will only stop with the taking of the palace," said the sergeant, who asked not to be named.
There was no official word from Mali's presidency, but statements posted by its official Twitter handle initially said there was not a coup attempt.
Toure, in power since 2002, has said he is planning to step down after April elections. The former paratroop commander overthrew a dictatorship in a 1991 coup and relinquished power a year later before returning to office via the ballot box.
Dozens of mutineers in pickup trucks seized the area near the state broadcaster in the heart of Bamako and programs went off air after around 10 minutes of automatic gunfire. Crowds of youths, some cheering and burning tires, gathered nearby.
Former colonial power France called on Malians to respect constitutional order and preserve democracy.
ROCKS, THEN BULLETS
A military source said a trigger for Wednesday's events was a visit by the defense minister to a barracks in the town of Kati about 20 km (13 miles) north of Bamako.
"The minister went to speak to troops but the talks went badly and people were complaining about the handling of the crisis in the north," the source said.
An official in the defense ministry who was at the meeting said a soldier accused the defense minister of betraying them by not giving them means to fight the rebels. Soldiers then began throwing rocks at the minister before they took weapons from the armory and started shooting in the air.
Bamako was briefly paralyzed last month as hundreds of Malians put up street barricades and burned tires in the streets to protest at the government's handling of the rebellion.
Tuareg fighters seeking to carve out a desert homeland in Mali's north have made advances in recent weeks, including the seizure this month of the key garrison town of Tessalit by the Algerian border.
The MNLA rebel movement has been bolstered by heavily armed Malian Tuareg returning from fighting alongside Libyan forces who tried in vain to prevent Muammar Gaddafi's overthrow last year.
The clashes have added a new layer of insecurity to a zone awash with smugglers and plagued by fighters linked to al Qaeda and is expected to complicate presidential elections in April.
(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra; Writing by Mark John and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)