Since then, however, security in Mali has deteriorated sharply. After the coup in March, extremist Muslim guerrillas in northern Mali declared an independent Islamist state. They have imposed sharia law and have begun enforcing strict social codes that include compulsory beards for men and a ban on television.
In the fabled desert city of Timbuktu, al-Qaeda sympathizers have destroyed ancient mausoleums and attacked other shrines as part of a religious cleansing campaign. Western aid workers have abandoned the northern half of the country after a string of kidnappings.
Thousands of Malians have fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries.
A fatal plunge
The three soldiers riding through Bamako in April had rented their 2010 Toyota Land Cruiser from a local agency, according to written statements provided to The Post by the Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg.
Bast was in the driver’s seat and was headed south across the Martyrs Bridge. Preliminary investigative results determined that he lost control of the Land Cruiser, which broke through the bridge’s guard rail and landed in the river below.
Also in the vehicle were three Moroccan women, according to the Army’s statement. Contributing factors in the accident, the Army said, were limited visibility and “a probable evasive maneuver on the part of the vehicle’s driver to avoid impacting with slower moving traffic.”
The soldiers died of “blunt force trauma” when the vehicle landed upside down in the shallow river, crushing the roof, the Army said.
The Special Operations Command said it could not answer questions about where the soldiers were going, nor why they were traveling with the unidentified Moroccan women, saying the matter is under investigation.
Larson-Kone, the embassy spokeswoman, said the soldiers were on “personal, not business-related travel” at the time, but she declined to provide details. Officials from the Africa Command also said that they did not know who the women were, but they added in a statement: “From what we know now, we have no reason to believe these women were engaged in acts of prostitution.”
Coincidentally, the incident occurred less than a week after President Obama’s visit to a summit in Cartagena, Colombia, where U.S. military personnel and Secret Service agents became embroiled in a scandal involving prostitutes.
Little details not adding up
At least two of the soldiers in Mali had been trained as communications or intelligence specialists.
Bast, the master sergeant, was a ham radio hobbyist who originally joined the Navy before switching to the Army several years ago. An Army spokesman described him as a “communications expert” and said he was posthumously given the Meritorious Service Medal but declined to say why.
Myrthil was a native of Haiti who joined the Army two decades ago. Military officials released virtually no details about his service record.
Utley, the captain, was a Kentucky native who joined the Army in 2002 to work as a signals and communications officer but later transferred to the Special Forces.
Friends said he had expected to deploy to Afghanistan last summer but received last-minute orders to go to Africa instead. His Mali assignment was scheduled to end this spring but was extended, they said.
Three weeks after the coup, on April 11, Utley sent a brief e-mail to a friend from college, Chris Atzinger, to report that he was all right and that he would write more later.
Atzinger said he and other friends of Utley’s were frustrated that the Army hasn’t given a clearer explanation of how he died. “Those little details don’t seem to add up,” Atzinger said. “All of us are resigned to the fact that we won’t ever know.”
Utley, a graduate of the University of Louisville, was a McConnell Scholar, part of a leadership program named after Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader. Less than a week after the fatal crash, McConnell gave a eulogy to Utley on the Senate floor, calling him “an American hero and patriot.”
Gary Gregg, director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, called Utley a star student and “just a terrific kid.” But he said the official account of the crash didn’t make sense.
“It seems really dubious that six people died in a single-car accident. It’s just very fishy,” Gregg said in a telephone interview.
Dana Priest and Julie Tate contributed to this report.