More arrests in Mali as new premier ponders cabinet

BAMAKO — Mali’s police announced a wave of arrests overnight after officers seized containerloads of weapons, as the country’s new prime minister considered Thursday who should form his transitional government.

Television footage showed assault rifles and ammunition clips as Colonel Diamou Keita, the head of the gendarmerie, said they had arrested 22 people, 11 of whom were civilians — one a banker — and 11 of them soldiers.

They had been picked up over the last 48 hours, he told state television station ORTM late Wednesday. Beyond that however, he did not identify those arrested.

“During searches in a number of homes, containers with new weapons were found,” said Keita. The weapons were not of the type normally held by the country’s armed forces, he added.

“We are up against a new threat, this infiltration of arms of war today into our country,” he said, without elaborating.

“The arrests come after investigations that were conducted by our different structures over several days,” Keita said, adding that “it is in no way a witch-hunt.”

Among those already detained late Tuesday were former prime minister Modibo Sidibe, former minister Soumaila Cisse and others thought to be close to former president Amadou Toumani Toure.

Toure was toppled last month in an internationally condemned military coup.

He formally stepped down earlier this month as part of a deal that the West African bloc ECOWAS hammered out with the putschists to push through a transitional administration that will oversee a return to democracy.

On Wednesday, Toure was at the Senegalese embassy in Bamako, said Senegal’s President Macky Sall from Paris, expressing concern about the arrests.

Sources in Mali said Toure was due to travel from Bamako to the Senegalese capital Dakar shortly. UN chief Ban Ki-moon has also condemned the arrests.

Late Tuesday, one of the coup leaders, Colonel Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, said that the investigation had been launched “on the instructions of the hierarchy” and on the strength of precise information.

The wave of arrests and the international condemnation that it has provoked, has not made the task of newly appointed prime minister Cheick Modibo Diarra any easier.

The former NASA astrophysicist has been given the job of forming a transitional administration to oversee a return to democracy.

One of his priorities will be to address the rebellion in the north, where Tuareg separatists and Islamist fighters have seized control, having taken advantage of the chaos that followed the coup to step up their insurrection.

He also has to deal with the growing humanitarian challenge posed by the conflict.

More than 268,000 people have fled the violence since the uprising began in mid-January, according to figures from the United Nations humanitarian office: some taking shelter elsewhere in the country, others in neighbouring countries.

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