BAMAKO, Mali — Soldiers arrested Mali's prime minister and ordered him to resign, showing that the military is still the real power in the capital of this large West Africa country even though soldiers made a show of returning control back to civilian leaders several months after launching a coup in March.
Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra, dressed in a dark suit and his forehead glistening with sweat, went on TV at 4 a.m. to announce his resignation. He was reportedly back in his house Tuesday afternoon under military guard, brought there from a military base.
"Our country is living through a period of crisis. Men and women who are worried about the future of our nation are hoping for peace," he said on TV. "It's for this reason that I, Cheikh Modibo Diarra, am resigning along with my entire government on this day, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. I apologize before the entire population of Mali."
Despite the events, planning for a European Union military training mission aimed at giving the Malian army the ability to oust Islamist insurgents who have seized northern Mali will proceed, said Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. He added that the EU is watching the situation closely and hopes for the quick appointment of a new prime minister, leading to credible elections and the restoration of constitutional rule.
EU foreign ministers on Monday approved the concept of an EU training mission for an attempt by Malian and other African troops to deprive the Islamists of a haven and training sites in north Mali, where they have instituted strict Shariah law, including punishment by stoning and amputation. But Germany's foreign minister indicated the arrest of Diarra may obstruct the plan.
"One thing is clear: our offers of help come with the condition that the process of restoring constitutional order in Mali be conducted credibly," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement. He later added: "A return to constitutional order is a very decisive criteria for our involvement" in the military training mission."
Hours before he announced his resignation, Mali's prime minister was arrested by the military in his home, forced into a car and driven to the Kati military camp, the sprawling base where the March 21 coup was launched. The developments indicate the military is still the real power in Mali, whose northern half fell to Islamist insurgents in the wake of the coup, even though the soldiers made a show months ago of handing power back to civilians.
Westerwelle said President Dioncounda Traore and other political leaders "must now act responsibly so that Mali returns to stability." But the 70-year-old Traore might not have the power to bring the military to heel. In May, Yerewoloton, a violent citizen's movement which is believed to be backed by the junta, broke through the security cordon at the presidential palace and severely beat Traore.
A police officer who was on duty Monday night at Bamako's international airport said the same group stormed the airport before the prime minister was to fly to Paris.
"The plane that was to take the prime minister to France was on the point of departure," said the officer, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. "It was stopped by people from the group Yerewoloton who invaded the airport. The people from Yerewoloton are still at the airport as we speak, searching cars."
In Paris, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said: "We condemn the circumstances in which Prime Minister Sheik Modibo Diarra was compelled to resign ... the former junta must stop its interventions in the political affairs of the country."
"These developments underline the need for the deployment of an African stabilization force," Lalliot said.
The spokesman for the military junta acknowledged that Malian soldiers arrested Diarra.
"For several days now, Cheikh Modibo Diarra has mobilized his supporters and boycotted the national conference (currently being held to discuss Mali's future)," said spokesman Bacary Mariko. "And now he says he's going to Paris for medical tests ... but we know better and realize that he is trying to flee in order to go and create a blockage in the Mali situation."
Mariko claimed that Diarra was "not getting along" with the president or coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo.
"It's the reason why Mali's army has taken things into their own hands and told Cheikh Modibo Diarra to resign for the good of Mali," Mariko said.
A police officer and an intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press said the 60-year-old Diarra was arrested at his home around 10 p.m. Monday by soldiers loyal to Sanogo.
Diarra's televised declaration may have been made at the military barracks, and not at the headquarters of the state broadcaster. Behind Diarra when he spoke on TV was a bare wall, not the professional studio of the national television station.
Human Rights Watch's senior researcher for West Africa, Corinne Dufka, condemned the military's intervention, saying it fits with the pattern of abuse by the soldiers ever since the coup eight months ago.
"They've arrested, beaten and intimidated journalists; tortured and disappeared military rivals; and now, apparently, arbitrarily detained the prime minister. None of these incidents have been investigated and those responsible appear to have been emboldened by the shameful lack of accountability," said Dufka.
For several weeks, tension has been mounting between the officers who led the coup and Diarra, the civilian prime minister whom they were forced to appoint when they handed back power to a transitional government.
Diarra, an astrophysicist who previously led one of NASA's Mars exploration programs, was initially seen as in step with Sanogo. Critics lambasted him for frequently driving to the Kati barracks to see the coup leader, apparently to seek his advice long after Sanogo was supposed to have handed power to civilians. In recent weeks though, Diarra has appeared to be taking stances that sometimes conflict with Sanogo.
Last weekend for example, Diarra helped organized a demonstration calling for a United Nations-backed military intervention to take back Mali's north.
Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal. AP writers Geir Moulson in Berlin, Don Melvin in Brussels and Jamey Keaton in Paris contributed to this report.
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