* Amadou Toumani Toure had image as democrat, statesman
* Ex-paratrooper handed over power after his own 1991 coup
* Won 2002 and 2007 elections, was going to stand down
By Pascal Fletcher
March 22 (Reuters) - Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure, whom renegade army officers said they toppled in an overnight coup, had gained the nickname of “Soldier of Democracy” in his West African state and was preparing to cede power after elections later this month.
But he is no stranger to coups or mutinies.
Toure, 63, a former paratrooper popularly known by his initials “ATT”, had himself seized power through arms in 1991, overthrowing military ruler Moussa Traore after the latter’s security forces killed more than 100 pro-democracy demonstrators.
But he quickly earned domestic and international acclaim by organising polls the following year and a democratic handover to an elected civilian president in the Sahelian country, Africa’s third largest gold miner and a major regional cotton grower.
Swapping his paratrooper’s red beret and fatigues for flowing civilian robes and a Muslim bonnet, he returned to Mali’s presidency through the ballot box in 2002 and was re-elected for his second and final five-year term in 2007.
Already hailed as a respected African statesman and peacemaker following his 1992 democratic handover, he was called upon in 1997 to broker a reconciliation between mutinous and loyalist troops in the Central African Republic.
But these conciliatory skills appear to have failed him with the young soldiers of his own army who announced in a televised statement early on Thursday that they were “putting an end to the incompetent regime of Amadou Toumani Toure”.
Government and military sources said Toure had left the presidential palace before the mutineers entered it and a defence ministry source said he was in a safe place, but his whereabouts were unknown.
Disgruntled members of his army had for weeks complained to Toure’s government that they did not have adequate weapons to fight a northern rebellion by Tuareg-led rebels whose ranks were swelled by well-armed, combat-hardened veterans who had fought for slain Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Toure last month faced demonstrators in the streets of Bamako protesting against what they said was the government’s ineffective response to the advancing rebellion.
The president, true to his conciliatory spirit and nationalist vision, had appealed to Malians to avoid falling into ethnic strife, telling inhabitants of the south not to carry out reprisal attacks against Tuaregs living there.
He had also insisted that Mali would hold its presidential election as scheduled in April, despite the Tuareg rebellion in the north. “We are already used to holding elections during war, and during Tuareg rebellions,” he said.
His government had firmly rejected the rebels’ goal of outright independence for three northern regions.
Western governments long wanted Toure to act as a bulwark against the infiltration southwards of al Qaeda’s North African franchise, but he failed to stop militants finding refuge in the desert wastes and hills of Mali’s lawless remote north.
The Malian army has received counter-terrorism training from the U.S. armed forces. On Monday, West Africa’s top regional decision-making body ECOWAS urged member states to back Mali with military equipment to fight the northern Tuareg-led rebels.
Unlike several other long-ruling African leaders over the last decade who have defied pro-democracy critics to secure amendments to their national constitutions to extend their terms in office, Toure repeatedly said he would not do this.
With his country held up as an example of democratic transition in an unruly West African region with a history of coups and military mutinies, Toure knew how to woo western governments and aid organisations.
“My ambition is to write a new page in our country’s history ... to make our country a model of good governance in a peaceful climate, a Mali able to give as much as it receives,” he said in a newspaper interview in 2002.
Apart from often acting as a mediator and peacekeeper on the troubled continent, he also worked on humanitarian projects with international figures like former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
His best known campaign was to wipe out Guinea worm, a tropical parasite that causes debilitating infections.
During his rule, he also declared housing, roads, and modernising the country’s agriculture as his priorities.
Although his dry, largely desert country remained heavily dependent on international aid, Toure said that aid was not enough and that Mali could not depend on donor cash for ever.
But he never forgot his military roots. He had received military training in the Soviet Union and France.
“Above all I am a soldier: I signed a contract to give my own life to the army, and therefore to Mali,” he said in 2002.
And in turbulent West Africa, a soldier’s fate can often mean being toppled by your own troops.