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African presidents forced to turn back from occupied Mali runway

The presidents of Ivory Coast, Benin, Liberia, Niger and Burkina Faso were due to arrive in Mali on Thursday to press for the departure of the junior officers that grabbed power in a coup last week.

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Soldiers sit guard on the tarmac of the international airport, where coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo had been due to meet a delegation of West African presidents, in Bamako, Mali, Thursday, March 29.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

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Five African presidents seeking to restore Mali's elected government were forced to make a mid-air U-turn and head to Ivory Coast to hold their meeting, after demonstrators supporting the military junta took over the tarmac to stop the jets from landing, officials said.

The presidents of Ivory Coast, Benin, Liberia, Niger and Burkina Faso were due to arrive in Mali on Thursday to press for the departure of the junior officers that grabbed power in a coup last week, reversing over two decades of democratic rule in this landlocked nation south of the Sahara.

The planes carrying the presidents were turned around after it became clear that the demonstrators had taken over the tarmac. They landed in the capital of Ivory Coast, where they went ahead with their meeting, officials said.

A senior adviser to the Ivorian president said that the five leaders were considering imposing economic and political sanctions on the regime of Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, and that the coup leader's unwillingness to even secure the airport for their arrival shows that he is not a partner worth taking seriously.

The adviser to President Alassane Ouattara, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said that the leaders are considering cutting off the gas supply to Mali, which can be done by sealing the border with Ivory Coast from where petroleum products are imported. They are also considering a travel ban on members of the junta and their family, as well as cutting off the supply of cash.

At the Bamako airport, Ouattara's Minister of African Integration Adama Bictogo, who had arrived in Mali on an earlier flight, told reporters that the presidents had not felt safe landing after pro-coup demonstrators flooded the runway.

"The meeting (in Bamako) was canceled for security reasons," said Bictogo. "When we arrived this morning we saw that the security hadn't been organized and that around 100 people had managed to get on the tarmac. This prevented the plane from landing, and there was hostility in the air," he said.

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He said that while he was waiting for the leaders to arrive, he took the opportunity to meet in the VIP lounge with coup leader Sanogo, and stressed the position of the Economic Community of West African States, who had sent the five-president delegation. Sanogo did not go to Abidjan for the meeting.

"This unfortunate incident can't be an obstacle to finding a solution to the crisis. The bridge hasn't been burnt," he said. "And certainly it was youthfulness and inexperience that let this happen, or perhaps they just let things get out of control."

Last week's coup happened in one of the few established democracies in the troubled western half of the African continent. Sanogo, who is in his 30s, seized power from President Amadou Toumani Toure, who is considered one of Africa's senior statesman and was just months from stepping down.

Sanogo's soldiers have ransacked the presidential palace. They have set up their de facto seat of power inside an aging, two-story building in the Kati military barracks located around 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the palace.

It was at that garrison that a mutiny erupted on March 21, led by troops angry over the treatment of fellow soldiers killed in operations in the country's north, where they were sent to fight Tuareg rebels. The soldiers accused Toure of mishandling the operations and of sending the military to the remote region without enough arms or ammunition.

Several thousand people took to the streets this week in support of the military takeover, indicating that frustration at Toure's handling of the rebellion is widespread. Toure has gone into hiding and his whereabouts are unknown. He gave an interview Thursday to French radio RFI saying that he was in good health and was carefully following the developments.

Meanwhile on Thursday, a joint force of Tuareg rebels began attacking the besieged northern city of Kidal using shells, rockets and gunfire, said a Niger government source speaking to both sides in the conflict.

The Tuareg leaders' decision to attack came after more than a week of negotiations failed, said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the press.

Kidal would be a major prize for the rebels, who relaunched their decades-old fight in mid-January, led by battle-hardened officers and troops who fought for Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and returned home heavily armed. Kidal is one of two major northern towns that failed to fall in two previous Tuareg rebellions in the 1990s and 2000s.

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