By Adama Diarra
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Mali's caretaker president Dioncounda Traore was beaten up and hospitalized after hundreds of protesters stormed his palace on Monday to demand his resignation, officials and several protesters said.
A spokesman for the soldiers behind a March 22 coup said Traore's close-protection officers had killed three people in the attack, in which protesters entered parts of the palace compound unopposed and tore up pictures of Traore.
Mali is struggling to cope with the aftermath of the coup and a subsequent rebellion in its desert north. Sanogo agreed at the weekend to drop objections to Traore remaining in charge but crowds took to the streets on Monday calling for him to quit.
Resolving the political crisis in the capital Bamako is a pre-requisite for foreign help in efforts to retake control of the north, now in the hands of separatist and Islamist rebels, including some al Qaeda fighters.
"He (Traore) has just been rushed to hospital ... They beat him seriously and tore his clothes," Bakary Mariko, spokesman for the CNRDRE body of soldiers who last month agreed to allow a transition back to civilian rule, said by telephone.
Sekou Sidibe, a witness, said that Traore had received injuries to the face and had been escorted to hospital by the country's interim prime minister and his bodyguards.
An aide to Traore said later that he had left hospital and had returned to his personal residence. It was not immediately clear when he would return to the palace compound.
Soldiers at the palace stood by as the civilians entered buildings on the compound while others clambered over armored vehicles parked nearby. Some protesters parked their motorbikes and bicycles in rooms in the palace.
"This is a spontaneous crowd. There were three dead and some injured by gunshot amongst the demonstrators. Dioncounda's security shot at people," Mariko said.
By mid-afternoon, the protesters had left, he said.
"DOWN WITH ECOWAS"
The protest, reflecting longstanding popular frustrations with Mali's political class, came despite Sanogo agreeing at the weekend to let Traore remain in charge for a year to oversee the full transition to civilian rule in return for securing the status and privileges accorded to former heads of state.
The coup was launched by soldiers complaining about conditions they were sent to fight northern rebels in but unintentionally emboldened the insurgents, including Islamists linked to al Qaeda, to seize two-thirds of the country.
The occupation of the presidential palace came after protesters also paralyzed traffic and blocked bridges with burning tires in the capital Bamako.
"There is no question of Dioncounda staying as president of Mali," said Daouda Diallo, one demonstrator amongst the group that marched up the hill to the presidential palace.
Demonstrators chanted slogans hostile to the 15-state West African regional bloc ECOWAS, which had threatened sanctions against Sanogo unless he allows Traore to remain in charge.
Traore is a labor activist turned political grandee who before his appointment last month as caretaker president was national parliament speaker. He held various ministerial jobs in the 1990s and is seen by his critics as part of a self-serving political elite that has misruled the country for years.
"We don't want Dioncounda" and "Down with ECOWAS" chanted some in the crowd.
"I am here because I am against Dioncounda. We don't want him in charge," said Bourama Sidy Coulibaly, another protester. "ECOWAS should not be meddling in Malian affairs."
ECOWAS has pledged to send a 3,000-strong force to Mali to help it restore its authority in the north, but it has not made any commitment to actually send troops to fight in the north and its precise mandate remains under discussion.
(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako; Writing by David Lewis; editing by Mark John and Diana Abdallah)