By Adama Diarra
DIAGO, Mali (Reuters) - Malian authorities have found a mass grave believed to contain bodies of soldiers missing since last year, a find the nation's prosecutor said should lead to murder being added to charges against a former junta leader.
General Amadou Sanogo, who led a March 2012 coup that plunged Mali into chaos, was arrested and charged with complicity in kidnapping last week, a sign Mali's new leaders are stamping their authority on the military.
Judicial sources said 21 bodies had been found overnight in the village of Diago near the southern garrison town of Kati, about 30 km (19 miles) north of the capital Bamako.
A Reuters reporter at the scene said police were guarding the shallow grave on Wednesday. Diago residents said it was empty after Malian officials removed the corpses on Tuesday.
Mali's chief prosecutor Daniel Tessougue told Reuters all signs pointed to the bodies found being those of 21 soldiers who disappeared after a failed April 2012 "counter-coup" by soldiers loyal to ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure, but the formal identification process would have to be finalized.
"We will add murder to the charges (against Sanogo). If we find there are signs of torture we will add that too," he said.
The case against Sanogo and several other soldiers is part of efforts by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to assert civilian control over the army, accused by human rights groups of excessive violence and torture during a chaotic 18 months when rebels occupied northern Mali last year.
"We saw authorities come and exhume the bodies last night," Yacouba Coulibaly, a Diago resident, told Reuters.
"We told the authorities a long time ago that there was a mass grave here from when soldiers came to bury people here in 2012. (It) was not a secret here in Diago," Coulibaly said.
In an indication of the sensitivity of the case, Birama Fall, a reporter for Bamako's Le Pretroire newspaper, said he was briefly detained last year and warned against writing about the missing soldiers after being tipped off by local officials.
"I had information but I was told by state security not to talk about it. Since then it has been a taboo subject," he said.
Sanogo's coup was popular as many Malians were frustrated at underdevelopment and high levels of corruption under Toure. His star has waned in recent months but 12 policemen were wounded in clashes with pro-Sanogo demonstrators in Kati this week.
A senior military source said authorities had been instructed to inspect the site by judge Yaya Karambe, who is presiding over Sanogo's case as well as those of several other soldiers questioned in an investigation into the "counter coup" and deaths of soldiers in a mutiny in September this year.
Tessougue, the prosecutor, said the figure of bodies found matches the number of soldiers missing after the April 2012 clashes. "The bodies are not yet formally identified but we suspect it is them (the missing soldiers) ... We found some military IDs and uniforms at the scene," he said.
At one point during talks with mediators in Mali's crisis last year, Sanogo, a U.S.-trained infantry officer, was offered the title of former head of state, which would have granted him immunity; but it was revoked by regional leaders.
After ceding power to an interim civilian administration, Sanogo headed a military committee tasked with reforming Mali's armed forces. He was also made a four-star general before being removed from his post in August, shortly after the election of the new president.
The army's implosion allowed Tuareg separatists and Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda to occupy Mali's vast north until they were scattered during a French-led intervention in January.
Attacks in northern Mali in recent weeks highlight the lingering Islamist threat while the depth of the divisions in the army mean Keita will have to push through reforms to revamp the West African state's demoralized military.
(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and David Lewis in Dakar; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by David Lewis and Ralph Boulton)