Africa leaders scrap Mali visit mid-flight on violence fears

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 29, 2012 9:17 AM
Africa leaders scrap Mali visit mid-flight on violence fears

By David Lewis and Ange Aboa

BAMAKO/ABIDJAN (Reuters) - West African presidents scheduled to meet Mali's junta leaders on Thursday were forced to turn around mid-flight after reports of pro-junta protests at the airport and in the capital, sources said.

An official at Ivory Coast's presidency confirmed the airplane carrying President Alassane Ouattara, one of a delegation of six heads of state from regional bloc ECOWAS meant to arrive in Mali, had returned to the capital Abidjan.

Two diplomatic sources said the other heads of state had also scrapped the planned meeting, designed to pressure the leaders of last week's coup that toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure to swiftly restore constitutional order.

"Everyone is heading home," one of the diplomats said, asking not to be named. There was no word on whether the visit would be rescheduled.

A Reuters reporter at Mali's Bamako airport said most of the red carpets laid out for the arrival of the visiting delegation had been rolled up, though security remained tight and an honor guard was deployed.

The overnight coup, seen as a setback to fragile democratic gains in Africa, was triggered by army anger at Toure's handling of a Tuareg rebellion in north Mali that in recent weeks has gained ground and inflicted losses on the army.

Regional neighbors said they were prepared to use sanctions and possible military force to dislodge Mali's new army leaders.

Reuters reporters said rival camps of hundreds of youths, some supporting and others opposing the junta, clashed in downtown Bamako on Thursday morning, and a group of junta supporters briefly occupied the airport landing strip.

As well as Ivory Coast's president, the ECOWAS delegation was meant to include Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaore, Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Niger's Mahamadou Issoufou, and Benin's Yayi Boni.

(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diarra; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Karolina Tagaris)