The detention of interim president Bah N’Daw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane followed a controversial cabinet reshuffle that removed two members of the junta that overthrew Mali’s government in August.
The international body monitoring Mali’s 18-month transition to a civilian-led government — comprising the AU, the West African bloc known as ECOWAS, the United Nations and U.S. officials, among others — said in a statement that it “expresses its deep concern” over the arrests.
Members of the monitoring group “strongly condemn the attempted coup,” the statement said, and “demand the immediate and unconditional release of these authorities,” adding that the “military elements detaining them will be held personally responsible for their security.”
The State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs called “for their immediate, unconditional release” in a tweet.
A spokesman for the junta, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, denied that military officers had arrested N’Daw and Ouane, saying they could “move freely.”
Army tanks paralyzed traffic in the West African nation’s capital, Bamako, in the hours after N’Daw and Ouane unveiled a new administration that excluded the junta members: the former defense minister, Sadio Camara, and security minister, Modibo Kone.
Officers detained the leaders and brought them to an army base north of Bamako, according to three Western diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The last president of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, resigned on state television after mutinous soldiers stormed the capital and forced him into their custody. Thousands of Malians had flooded the streets in the preceding months, accusing him of corruption and demanding his exit.
Protesters said they took issue with Keïta’s close ties with France and the way he handled the insurgency that has rocked stability in Mali for the past eight years.
“I do not wish for blood to be shed anymore so I can maintain power,” Keïta said at the time. “I have decided to quit my duties.”
Fighters linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have taken over much of the countryside, waging a bloody war against the government and Western influence. The country endured its deadliest year on record in 2020, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which counted more than 2,800 casualties.
Mali’s transition government, installed shortly after the toppling, announced a new mix of 25 ministers Monday amid mounting criticism that the army held too much power.
N’Daw, 70, was a defense minister under Keïta. He retired from the Malian military about a decade ago and is supposed to serve as president until the next election in March 2022.