4 Africa presidents turn back from Mali

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI Associated Press Published:

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) -- Negotiations between Mali's military junta and four West African presidents seeking to restore the country's elected government will take place in Ivory Coast, after the plane carrying the heads of state to Mali turned around because demonstrators were on the airport tarmac, an adviser to Ivory Coast's president said Thursday.

The adviser said the plane never landed as previously reported, but turned around after flying over the airport. The four presidents represented the West African bloc, ECOWAS, which is threatening military force if Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo doesn't step down.

Witnesses said groups of demonstrators had gone onto the tarmac before the scheduled arrival of the plane shouting "Shame on ECOWAS. Mali is for us."

"There was not enough security, so we are going back to Abidjan," the adviser told The Associated Press. "The meeting is now going to be held at the Abidjan airport." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the press.

He said the junta leaders would also travel to Abidjan, Ivory Coast for the meetings.

Presidents from Ivory Coast, Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso were to meet with the army captain that led the coup last week following a mutiny at an army base.

"We plan on imposing sanctions immediately if they do not restore constitutional order," the adviser said.

A diplomat from one of the four West African countries who was at the airport Thursday confirmed that "the meeting will be held in a different country."

Last week's coup happened in one of the few established democracies in the troubled western half of the African continent. Sanogo is now based at the Kati garrison, a military camp located a dozen miles (kilometers) from the presidential palace.

It was at that garrison that a mutiny erupted on March 21, led by troops angry over the treatment of fellow soldiers killed in operations in the country's north, where they were sent to fight Tuareg rebels. The soldiers accused the country's democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Toure of mishandling the operations and of sending the military to the remote region without enough ammunition.

Several thousand people took to the streets this week in support of the military takeover, indicating that frustration at Toure's handling of the rebellion is widespread. Toure has gone into hiding and his whereabouts are unknown. He gave an interview Thursday to French radio RFI saying that he was in good health and was carefully following the developments.

The four presidents arriving Thursday are coming under the aegis of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States. The regional bloc has suspended Mali's membership.

Meanwhile on Thursday, a joint force of Tuareg rebels began attacking the besieged northern city of Kidal using shells, rockets and gunfire, said a Niger government source speaking to both sides in the conflict.

The Tuareg leaders' decision to attack came after more than a week of negotiations failed, said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the press.

Tuareg rebels were trying to negotiate with a Tuareg colonel commanding the Kidal garrison to surrender without a fight or to join the rebels.

Kidal would be a major prize for the rebels, who relaunched their decades-old fight in mid-January, led by battle-hardened officers and troops who fought for Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and returned home heavily armed. Kidal is one of two major northern towns that failed to fall in two previous Tuareg rebellions in the 1990s and 2000s.

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Associated Press writers Martin Vogl and Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali and Michelle Faul in Agadez, Niger contributed to this report.