BAMAKO, Mali (Reuters) - Malian government soldiers fought mutinous paratroops in the capital Bamako on Friday in a clash that threatened to undermine a French-led offensive against Islamist rebels which has moved up close to the Algerian border.
In the southern capital, local residents fled in panic as heavy gunfire echoed from the Djikoroni-Para paratrooper base on the Niger River and army units with armoured vehicles surrounded the camp. At least one person was killed, state media reported.
Smoke rose from the base, where mutinous members of the ‘red beret’ paratroop unit loyal to deposed Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was toppled in a coup last year, started firing with their weapons to protest attempts to redeploy them.
After several hours of firing, calm returned at the camp.
The paratroopers had been ordered to join other units at the front in the ongoing French-led campaign against al Qaeda-allied insurgents. But they insisted on staying together as a regiment and resisted the military police, Malian officers said.
The shooting between forces loyal to Mali’s current rulers and the Toure partisans revealed splits in the armed forces still lingering after a military coup in March that plunged the previously stable West African state into chaos.
Last year’s coup resulted in Tuareg rebels seizing the north in a revolt later hijacked by Islamist radicals. Mali, a former French colony, is Africa’s third-largest gold producer.
The Bamako fighting pointed to serious weaknesses in the Malian state which could set back the rapid military gains made by France’s four-week-old military intervention in north Mali, which has driven Islamist insurgents from major urban areas.
Residents of the capital, who had been celebrating the French battlefield successes, expressed their frustration.
“I don’t understand how at a moment when French and African forces are here to fight our war in our place ... Malian soldiers, instead of going to fight at the front, are fighting over a stupid quarrel,” said one west Bamako resident, Assa.
“This is a real shame. I feeling like dropping my Malian nationality,” she added.
After driving the Islamists into the mountainous northeast, French troops joined by Chadian soldiers have been trying to flush the retreating rebels from their remote Saharan hideouts, where they are believed to be holding French hostages.
French special forces parachuted in to seize the desert town and airfield of Tessalit on Friday, about 50 km (30 miles) as the crow flies from the Algerian frontier. This was the northernmost town reached so far by the French.
But in a sign the rebels could fight back with guerrilla tactics, a suicide bomber on a motorbike blew himself up on Friday at a checkpoint north of Gao, recently retaken from the Islamists. A soldier was injured, a Malian officer told Reuters.
It was the first reported suicide bombing since the French-led military operation launched on January 11 expelled the Islamist rebels from their desert strongholds of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.
At least two landmine explosions on a main route to Gao since its recapture have killed several Malian soldiers.
Malian and other troops from a U.N.-backed African force expected to number 8,000 are still being deployed and are due to provide security behind the French.
But the Bamako clash underlined the need for political reforms to accompany the military offensive. France’s Mali operation is backed by the United States and Europe as a strike against Islamist jihadists threatening wider attacks.
France and its allies are urging Mali’s interim civilian and military authorities to open a national reconciliation dialogue that addresses the pro-autonomy grievances of northern communities like the Tuaregs, and to hold democratic elections.
Jakkie Cilliers, executive director of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS), said the Bamako clash betrayed the lack of real legitimacy of Mali’s current rulers.
“What now needs to happen is the political process, that includes the transformation of the local security forces,” Cilliers said.
Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore has said he intends to hold national elections by July 31.
Since last year’s coup, the elite paratroopers loyal to former President Toure had been largely sidelined and some were arrested following an attempted counter-coup in May.
“The Chief of Staff had taken a disciplinary measure against some of the paratroopers, and some of them were not happy with the decision so they woke up this morning and started shooting,” a Malian defence ministry official told Reuters.
Family members of the mutinous paratroopers had also confronted the military police on Friday, hurling stones.
In May, troops loyal to the March coup leader, U.S.-trained Captain Amadou Sanogo, said they put down a counter-coup attempt by the paratroopers which led to several days of fighting in the riverside capital in which at least 27 people were killed.
Sanogo himself, who has nominally handed over to an interim civilian government, has been accused by domestic and international critics of persistently meddling in state affairs, including arresting civilian and military opponents.
Additional reporting by Adama Diarra in Bamako, David Lewis in gao, Bate Felix, Richard Valdmanis and Pascal Fletcher in Dakar; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Jon Boyle