By Tiemoko Diallo and Aaron Ross
Bamako – Mali’s military junta has released two senior government officials detained during the coup against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, an ally of Keita said, as UN human rights officials met overnight with the ousted leader.
There has been no word from Keita since Tuesday, when he dissolved parliament and then resigned after being detained at gunpoint, deepening the crisis facing a country already struggling to fend off an insurgency by Islamist militants.
The release of Finance Minister Abdoulaye Daffe and the president’s private secretary, Sabane Mahalmoudou, came as junta leaders held discussions with political leaders about creating a transitional authority.
“They were freed but I don’t know in what condition,” the head of Keita’s party, Bocary Treta, told Reuters.
A United Nations human rights team visited Keita and other detainees late on Thursday, the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSMA, said. It provided no details on what was said or on the condition of the captives.
The streets of the capital Bamako were calm for the third straight day on Friday ahead of a rally planned by an opposition coalition that led protests against Keita before the coup and has since embraced the mutineers.
The coup leaders have said they acted because the country was sinking into chaos and insecurity, largely the fault of poor government. They said they wanted to rebuild stability and have promised to oversee a transition to elections within a “reasonable” amount of time.
But the military overthrow has dismayed international and regional powers, who fear it could further destabilise the former French colony and West Africa’s entire Sahel region.
A coup in 2012 helped hasten a takeover of northern Mali by al Qaeda-linked militants, and al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates are active in the north and centre of the country.
Leaders of Keita’s ruling coalition said they met senior coup figures on Thursday.
“It went well,” Djibril Tall, the president of a party within the coalition, told Radio France Internationale (RFI), adding that he was not concerned the junta would cling to power.
Junta spokesman Ismael Wague said in an interview with France 24 television on Thursday that the officers were meeting political leaders and activists to chart a way forward.
“At the end of the meetings with the parties, we will put in place a transitional council with a transitional president,” Wague said.
A delegation from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is expected to arrive soon in Bamako, after the bloc held an emergency summit on Thursday aimed at reversing the coup.
The mission, led by former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, intends “to negotiate the immediate release of the president and also ensure the restoration of constitutional government,” Jonathan’s spokesman said. The timing of the visit is not yet confirmed.
ECOWAS has already suspended Mali’s membership, shut off borders and halted financial flows to the country.
France, which has troops in Mali to counter the jihadist threat, has joined other foreign powers in condemning the junta and calling for Keita’s release. But in contrast to ECOWAS, it has emphasised the need for a return to democratic rule, rather than the reversal of the coup.
“Power must be returned to civilians as soon as possible and the transition guaranteed,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday.