Mali president, 70, unconscious after mob attack

Protesters carry a coffin marked with the name of interim president Dioncounda Traore in Bamako, Mali, Monday May 21, 2012.
AP Photo/Harouna Traore

(AP) BAMAKO, Mali - Demonstrators forced their way into the office of Mali's interim president on Monday and attacked the elderly leader, who was later brought to a local hospital unconscious, a witness and an associate of the president said.

Mali's interim leader Dioncounda Traore is pictured, on May 3, 2012 in Dakar.

Dioncounda Traore was brought into the Point G Hospital with an injury to the head, said Sekou Yattara, a medical student there. The 70-year-old interim leader was not conscious when he arrived at the hospital, Yattara added, explaining that he learned of the president's condition from the doctors treating him.

"He has been badly injured but the information I have is that his life is not in danger," said Iba N'Diaye, the vice president of Traore's party. "This was an attempt on his life," he added, saying that protesters came into his office and attacked him.

Thousands of people protested at the presidential palace in Bamako on Monday angry about a deal brokered by regional powers that extended the time Traore would stay in power. The demonstrators blocked streets and marched toward the presidential palace.

They carried sticks and branches from trees with which they hit portraits of Traore, others ripped photocopies of the interim president's photograph. One group carried a dummy wrapped in cloth lying on two long sticks, meant to represent Dioncounda's dead body.

Just months before it was to hold elections, Mali was thrown into chaos on March 21 when soldiers staged a coup, driving the country's democratically elected president — who was not seeking re-election — into exile. The coup reversed two decades of democratic rule in one of the only stable countries in this volatile patch of Africa, and Mali's neighbors reacted swiftly.

The Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, imposed strict sanctions, until the junta agreed to restore the country's constitution.

The constitution called for the head of the national assembly — Dioncounda Traore — to become interim president for a 40-day period, before new elections could be held. The 40-day window expired on Thursday, and ECOWAS wanted Traore's term extended for another year, in order to give the country time to properly plan elections. The junta leader agreed over the weekend to allow Traore's term to be extended in return for receiving a lifetime salary, and the status of a former head of state.

Even as officials on Monday were announcing the new deal, thousands of demonstrators allied with the soldiers that seized power poured into the streets, and made their way up the steep hill, known as Koulouba, where the presidential palace sits. It appears that they were able to penetrate the palace with the help of soldiers belonging to the junta.

An Associated Press reporter saw the protesters break into the palace, after the soldiers stationed at the entrance to the compound waved them in.

N'Diaye, the vice president of Traore's party, known by its acronym, ADEMA, said that the soldiers were complicit in the attack on the interim leader.

"It's our opinion that there must have been some complicity on the part of the security services. The presidential palace is not just any location. It is protected by soldiers," he said.

The soldiers who seized power in March were angry over the ex-president's handling of a rebellion by Tuareg nationalists in the northern half of the country. However, that rebellion only gained steam in the wake of the coup and the country is now effectively partitioned in two, with the northern half — an area as large as France — in the hands of Tuaregs and Islamist rebels.

While the junta continued to say that they had only seized power in order to address the botched military response to the rebellion, the junior officers quickly made themselves at home. Even after signing an agreement in April agreeing to step down, the junta leader continued to act as the country's de facto ruler. He held meetings with mediators from his increasingly well-equipped office inside the military barracks, where each passing week reporters saw construction crews adding new amenities, as well as pouring cement, updating the electrical wiring and hauling in new furniture.

At times it appeared that Mali had two administrations — a civilian one recognized by the international community but with little power, and a military one, with significant power but no recognition.

Although many in Mali are proud of the nation's democratic roots, a significant chunk of the population backed the putschists because of anger over the ex-leader's handling of the rebellion in the north and due to spiraling corruption.

Traore remains a divisive figure, because he was the head of the national assembly under the former president. He is seen as tainted by the cloud of corruption that hung over the former administration.