By David Lewis and Saliou Samb
DAKAR/CONAKRY (Reuters) - Guinea has blocked a shipment of heavy weapons to Mali fearing they could end up in the wrong hands, a Guinean official and regional diplomats said on Thursday, a further sign of distrust between regional powers and Mali's former junta.
The weeks-long weapons stand-off underscores a deep regional crisis as Mali's neighbors and Western nations fear a new global security threat but are struggling to respond to it.
Rebels dominated by Islamists - including al Qaeda - have taken over the north, and Mali's military coup leaders, despite handing power to civilians in April, are widely suspected of pulling levers of power behind the scenes.
Mali's military leadership this week said it opposed direct foreign intervention to regain control of the desert north, clashing publicly with the interim government which had hours earlier made a formal request for a regional force.
"(West African regional bloc) ECOWAS wanted the constitutional crisis ended and a strong civilian government in place before they released the weapons," a regional diplomat told Reuters. "They didn't want to reinforce the junta."
Abdoul Kabele Camara, Guinea's deputy defense minister, confirmed a weapons shipment to land-locked Mali had been blocked as the government did not know who in Mali should receive them but said there were talks over their release.
A source monitoring international arms shipments said that about 20 BTR-60 armored personnel carriers (APCs), ordered by ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure, were being blocked onboard a ship that had sailed from Bulgaria.
Bakary Mariko, a spokesman for Mali's CNRDRE former junta, blamed ECOWAS and the African Union for Guinea's freezing of the shipment, which he said included about a dozen APCs. He said a shipment of 1,000 light arms had been blocked also at the Senegalese port of Dakar.
ECOWAS has not made an official statement, but a foreign ministry official from a member state said the group had been waiting for a proper authority to receive the weapons.
"The army elements of the junta did not represent the state," he said, adding that Malian and ECOWAS officials were now in the country working to release the weapons.
After months of uncertainty, Mali's interim leader this week officially requested military assistance from West Africa's ECOWAS bloc to tackle its crises.
But the ex-junta, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, still appears against the intervention of foreign soldiers.
"NO WEST AFRICAN TROOPS"
Mali's military cited the poor handling of the insurgency as the cause of its coup but has made little effort to retake the north, and has been regularly accused of meddling in politics.
Distrust is reciprocated, with Mariko saying the ex-junta would welcome logistical, financial and intelligence help from ECOWAS to retake control of the Islamist-controlled north, but foreign boots on the ground were not welcome.
"Mali has more than 26,000 men. We don't need men from outside," he said.
Defense analysts have little confidence in Mali's military, which abandoned three northern regions to rebels in as many days after the coup, and ECOWAS has said for months it wants to deploy a force to contain what it sees as a regional threat.
Pending an official request from Bamako, regional armies have been preparing a plan based on intervention involving some 3,000 soldiers to stabilize the capital, retrain Mali's army and then help it defeat the Islamist insurgents if talks fail.
The mission still lacks the sought-after United Nations backing and will need time and money before it is operational.
But a sterner challenge may yet be to forge a working relationship between Mali's weak civilian administration, the ex-junta, which is discredited internationally, and divided regional leaders.
"The interim government realized that only ECOWAS is really behind them," the diplomat said. "The (former) junta's refusal of ECOWAS is not about patriotism. They didn't want ECOWAS to come and hijack the international (military) support for Mali."
(Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Abidjan; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Louise Ireland)
(This story was refiled to add dropped word in the first paragraph to clarify sourcing)