April 30, 2012 / 8:29 PM / 8 years ago

UPDATE 2-Mali soldiers fight to reverse coup in capital

(Updates with fighting downtown, details on airport and state broadcaster)

By Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo

BAMAKO, April 30 (Reuters) - Soldiers from Mali’s presidential guard unit, loyal to the country’s ousted president, battled junta forces on Monday in an bid to wrest back control of the capital Bamako a month after a coup, witnesses and a junta official said.

Heavy gunfire rang out in the centre of the city near a military barracks, and the red beret presidential unit took up positions around the airport and entered the state broadcaster building, witnesses said.

“These are elements of the presidential guard from the old regime and they’re trying to turn things around,” Bacary Mariko, a spokesman for the ruling military junta told Reuters. “We have the situation under control.”

A Reuters witness said residents near the airport were fleeing after truckloads of heavily armed red berets arrived. Electricity to the neighbourhood was later cut, plunging it into darkness.

Gunfire rang out near the state broadcaster’s main building, and a technician inside said red berets had entered. State television broadcast a documentary about Japan instead of the usual 2000 GMT news programming.

“There is heavy firing all around. It is continuing. The streets are deserted. No one is moving,” a Reuters witness said.

Mutinous soldiers angered by the government’s handling of a rebellion by Tuaregs in the vast desert north toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure on March 22, forcing him to flee the country for neighbouring Senegal.

The coup, which pre-empted a planned April election meant to replace Toure, has drawn broad international criticism as a major setback for regional democracy. The northern rebels took advantage of the chaos to seize several northern towns, effectively taking control of two-third of the nation.

Mali’s ruling junta has named an interim government in a first step to restoring constitutional order since the coup, but it has balked at a plan by regional bloc ECOWAS to send more than 3,000 troops to help oversee a one-year transition.

The junta had already agreed to hand over power for 40 days to a civilian government led by caretaker president Dioncounda Traore, and then allow elections by the end of May.

But ECOWAS said last week the interim government should have up to 12 months to prepare for the elections, an announcement that angered the junta. (Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo, Adama Diarra, David Lewis and; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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