The rising tensions that followed the March 22 military coup in Mali have intensified further with the arrest, on the orders of the coup leader Amadou Sanogo, of Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra. Mr. Diarra, who has been placed under house arrest by the interim President Dioncounda Traoré, has also resigned, and has been replaced by a former civil servant, Diango Cissoko. These developments, which strongly indicate Captain Sanogo is the man still calling the shots, throw into chaos almost all the recent regional and international attempts to stabilise the country. Plans for a United Nations intervention, which both Mali and the regional body, the Economic Community of West African States, had requested in October under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, are now on indefinite hold; the 3,200-strong force assembled for the purpose remains on standby. Mr. Diarra’s arrest has been widely condemned; the president of the African Union Commission has called for the “complete subordination of the army and security forces to civilian rule”, the U.N. Security Council has threatened sanctions against those who obstruct a return to constitutional politics and has called for the military to stay out of politics, and the former colonial power, France, has reconfirmed the need for the rapid use of an African stabilisation force. Germany and the United States have taken similar positions.

Captain Sanogo may have favoured Mr. Cissoko in view of his pliability while he was mediating between the army and the politicians. Mr. Diarra’s removal is therefore very ominous. The military carried out the March coup on the pretext that Amadou Touré, who was President at the time, was failing to quell the Tuareg secessionist movement in northern Mali. Since then, though, they themselves lost the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, and the insurgency gained strength when the Tuaregs joined up with the extreme Islamist movement Ansar Dine, an offshoot of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb who have imposed a brutal form of the Sharia law on areas they control. Leftover weapons from the western-inspired overthrow of Muammar Qadhafi in Libya are also flooding in, and any armed action by the Bamako regime will face tougher resistance now, despite disagreements between the Tuaregs and Ansar Dine. In addition, the Malian economy is crumbling under pressure from subsidised cotton imports, and violence by Sanogo-approved armed militias in the south is worsening. Mali’s regional neighbours are still reluctant to back Ecowas’s words with action, but given the right kind of international backing it may still be possible to avert a tragic civil war.

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