Police used teargas to disperse campaigners for civilian rule before substantive talks over Mali’s political future began in Bamako on Thursday, indicating a deepening rift over who should lead a post-coup transitional government.
About 100 supporters of the M5-RFP coalition, which led months of protests against now-deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, clashed with police at the conference centre in the capital, delaying talks.
The junta that toppled Keita on August 18 said the transitional government could be led by a military officer, while the M5-RFP and regional leaders call for a civilian to take the role.
“They are trying to confiscate our revolution,” said Bakary Keita, a senior M5-RFP member. “We were clear from the start. We want a civilian as president of the transition, not a soldier.”
International powers fear political uncertainty could undermine the fight across West Africa’s Sahel region against Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State, as a previous coup did in 2012.
Supporters of the ruling junta, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), assembled across the street from the building hosting the talks with political parties and civil society groups.
Some carried signs saying “Long live the CNSP” and portraits of CNSP president Colonel Assimi Goita.
“This is about diagnosing, without complacency, the problems undermining our democratic system,” Goita said opening the three-day talks, but did not weigh in on who should lead the transition.
West African leaders said the CNSP must name a civilian interim president and prime minister by September 15 if they are to start easing sanctions imposed after the coup.
The talks were boycotted by the main alliance of pro-independence Tuaregs in northern Mali, who complain the CNSP cancelled a planned meeting with them last week.
The chaos unleashed by a Tuareg rebellion in 2012 led to Islamist militants briefly taking over the desert north before French forces intervened a year later to push them back.