Apart from bringing an abrupt end to two decades of elected government, the March 22 coup in Mali could exacerbate problems extending far beyond the region. The coup — in which army officers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré — was relatively free of violence, and loyalist soldiers are apparently protecting Mr. Touré, though his exact whereabouts are not known. Some heavy weapons, however, were used, and the capital Bamako suffered four days of looting, some of it by soldiers, before the junta, the National Committee for the Reinstatement of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDRE), ordered them back to barracks. The stated reason for the coup is military disaffection with the government over the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali, where fighting has displaced over 200,000 people. The 7,000-strong army has lost important towns; the Tuaregs demand control of the Azawad region, which includes key centres like Timbuktu and Gao, but also stretches into Mauritania, Algeria, and Niger. The northern rebels have been strengthened by returnees from Libya, who have sophisticated weapons from their time as mercenaries for the former ruler, Muammar al-Qadhafi, and a faction of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad seeks to impose sharia law; al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has a presence in northern Mali as well.

The coup has, unsurprisingly, caused strong reactions. The public has demonstrated for a return to constitutional government, and 38 political parties, including the largest in parliament, the Alliance for Democracy-Pan African Party, have condemned it, demanding that presidential elections be held as scheduled on April 29. President Touré, incidentally, is not eligible to run again and was quite happy to move on. The African Union has suspended Mali; the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is threatening military intervention, and the United Nations Security Council has condemned the coup. Mali's main donors, the United States, Canada, the EU, and the African Development Bank, are restricting aid to humanitarian assistance. Given the decidedly mixed results that ECOWAS military interventions elsewhere in the region have produced, it is important that West African states do not precipitate an armed showdown with the putschists. The goal has to be early presidential elections, a return to constitutional order and a peaceful resolution of the Tuaregissue. Mali is one of the world's poorest countries and can ill afford conflict. More than anything, its people deserve their democracy back.

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