BAMAKO (Reuters) – Coup leaders in Mali have released President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and he has returned home, his representative said on Thursday, a potential sign of good faith a day ahead of a regional summit on the country’s political future.
A group of military officers has controlled Mali since Aug. 18, when they detained Keita at gunpoint and forced him to resign in a takeover foreign powers fear could further destabilise the West African nation and undermine a fight against Islamist militants in the wider Sahel region.
Keita’s release, nine days after he was ousted and detained, had been one of the demands of West Africa’s regional bloc, which sent a delegation to Mali at the weekend to discuss a timeline for transition to civilian rule with the coup’s leaders.
On Thursday morning, Keita was freed from where he was being held outside the city, a spokesman for the junta, Djibrilla Maiga, said.
The president’s former chief of staff, Mahamadou Camara, confirmed Keita had returned to his residence in Bamako’s Sebenikoro district.
“He has gone home. I do not know if he will travel,” Camara told Reuters, when asked if the deposed leader planned to leave the country.
The U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali said its head had visited Keita at his home on Thursday.
The junta leaders say they had mutinied because the country was sinking into chaos and insecurity, which they blamed largely on the government. They have promised to oversee a move to elections within a “reasonable” time.
Earlier on Thursday, France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTL radio the coup would not stop French military operations against affiliates of al Qaeda and Islamic State in Mali’s central and northern regions, but urged a swift transition of power.
Four Malian solders were killed and 12 wounded on Thursday in the violence-plagued central region of Mopti, after militants ambushed a military anti-poaching patrol, the army said. It added later that around 20 armed assailants were “neutralised” in the region.
The junta, which calls itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), has told the delegation of West African mediators they want to stay in power for three years, while the regional bloc is seeking a transitional government of no more than one year, Nigeria said on Wednesday.
Mali’s opposition coalition, the M5-RFP, which held a series mass protests before the coup calling for Keita to reign, on Thursday proposed a transitional government, led by a civilian, which would not exceed two years but would be longer than a year.
At least three diplomatic sources said senior leaders of the junta were on a regional tour to lobby some heads of state ahead of the summit on Friday. The sources said the junta leaders visited Burkina Faso and Niger, whose president Mahamadou Issoufou chairs the regional bloc.
The junta also asked the bloc to ease sanctions on Mali.
The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has taken a hard line on the coup, shutting borders and halting financial flows.
Sanctions are already disrupting economic transactions between landlocked Mali and its neighbours, a group of international non-governmental organisations said, calling on ECOWAS to guarantee humanitarian aid flows would not be affected.
Mali has struggled to regain stability since a Tuareg uprising in 2012 was hijacked by Islamist militants. Since 2018, the country has seen a sharp increase in violence and insecurity that has driven more than half a million people from their homes.
(Additional reporting by John Irish; Writing by Alessandra Prentice and Bate Felix; Editing by John Stonestreet and David Holmes)