Mali junta says it freed ousted president ahead of African bloc summit

Former leader Ibrahim Boubacar Keita believed to be at home in Bamako after being detained during the coup

FILE PHOTO: Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita poses for a picture during the G5 Sahel summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania June 30, 2020. Ludovic Marin /Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
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Mali's new military rulers on Thursday said former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was detained during the country's coup on August 18, had been freed.

The announcement came on the eve of a summit by Mali's neighbours, who are to decide whether to increase pressure on the junta.

The removal of Mr Keita, 75, by rebel troops sent shockwaves through the region and in France, which considers Mali to be crucial to its campaign against extremism in the Sahel.

More than 5,000 French troops are based in the region.

"President IBK is free in his movements, he's at home," Djibrila Maiga, a spokesman for the junta, told AFP.

The junta, calling itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, announced on Facebook that "former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has been released and is currently in his residence".

One of Mr Keita's relatives said he was returned overnight to his house in the Sebenikoro district of the capital Bamako.

The relative did not say whether he was still subject to restrictions.

Mr Keita, prime minister Boubou Cisse and other senior officials were seized by young officers who mutinied at a base near Bamako.

In the early hours of August 19, Mr Keita appeared on national TV to announce his resignation, saying he had had no other choice and wanted to avoid "bloodshed".

BAMAKO, MALI - AUGUST 24: President of the CNSP and head of Malian special forces arrives at the transitional talks with ECOWAS on August 24, 2020 in Bamako, Mali. Three-day talks in Mali between junta and West African leaders following last weeks coup aimed at resolving the country's political future have ended without agreement. (Photo by John Kalapo/Getty Images)

His release and that of other leaders is a key demand of Mali's neighbours, its ally France and international organisations, including the African Union and EU.

Mr Keita's son Karim, an MP whose flamboyant lifestyle made him the target of protesters demanding his father's resignation, has fled to a "neighbouring country," sources said on Thursday.

Former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, leading a team from the Economic Community of West African States, was given access to Mr Keita last Saturday and said he seemed "very fine."

The announcement on Thursday came on the eve of a virtual summit by the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, which has imposed sanctions against Mali over the coup.

They include a closure of borders and a ban on trade, which threaten to worsen Mali's severe social and economic troubles.

Mr Jonathan's three-day mission to Bamako foundered on the question of the transition to civilian rule.

The junta promised to enact a political transition and hold elections within a "reasonable time", but did not give details.

Discussing progress with Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari, Mr Jonathan said the coup leaders wanted to stay in power for a three-year transition period.

The offer was rejected by the mediators.

Mr Johnson told them that the bloc would accept an interim government, led by a civilian or retired military officer, to last for six or nine months, with a maximum of 12.

Mr Keita was elected in 2013 as a unifying figure in a fractured country and was returned in 2018 for a second five-year term.

BAMAKO, MALI - AUGUST 24:  ECOWAS mediator, former President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan at the press conference after leading talks with Western African envoys and the military junta CNSP that forced President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita's resignation and the governments disbanding last week on August 24, 2020 in Bamako, Mali. Three-day talks in Mali between junta and West African leaders following last weeks coup aimed at resolving the country's political future have ended without agreement. (Photo by John Kalapo/Getty Images)

But his popularity dropped as he failed to counter a militant campaign that has killed thousands and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes.

There was also public  anger that Mr Keita failed to reverse the downward spiral of Mali's economy.

The army announced that four troops were killed and 12 wounded in an ambush on Thursday, which it blamed on extremists.

It was the second time that the armed forces have suffered a loss on this scale since the coup.

Both attacks have happened in central Mali, a volatile, ethnically diverse region.

"Our wish is to maintain the Malian army's commitment in the fight against armed terrorist groups," the head of the French armed forces, Francois Lecointre, said in the Estonian capital of Tallinn on Thursday.

"We are going to see if the Malian armed forces are able to maintain the momentum. We have told them that this appears essential to us."