Last updated: December 11, 2012 7:43 am

Mali prime minister steps down

Cheick Modibo Diarra©Reuters

Cheick Modibo Diarra resigned after his arrest

Plans to send west African troops to help liberate northern Mali from al-Qaeda-linked militants have been set back after the country’s interim prime minister was arrested and forced to resign by the army.

Cheick Modibo Diarra, 60, was seized at his home on Monday night shortly before he was due to fly to France for a medical check-up. Early on Tuesday morning, while still in military custody, he announced on state television that he had resigned, along with his government. A spokesman for Captain Amadou Sanogo, who led the coup in Mali in March and in theory handed power to a civilian government a month later, told Reuters that Mr Diarra was forced out because he was “no longer working in the interests of the country”.

The spokesman also said that President Dioncounda Traoré remained in place and a replacement prime minister would be announced in the coming hours. At the end of Tuesday, no replacement had been announced.

The move against Mr Diarra in the capital, Bamako, has created fresh political turmoil, and raised more questions about the viability of a joint regional and local military response in northern Mali. The vast desert area came under the control this year of various Islamist militant groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, raising fears that it could became a terrorist haven.

With support from some western countries, especially France, leaders from the west African regional bloc Ecowas have drawn up a plan to send a 3,300-strong force to Mali in 2013 to help its weak army win back the north. Before then, 250 military trainers from the European Union will help build the ability of Malian troops, under plans approved in Brussels on Monday.

Mr Diarra was a strong proponent of outside military intervention but Mr Sanogo and his fellow coup leaders, who fear a dilution of their powers if foreign forces arrive, are not.

The French foreign ministry on Tuesday called for the rapid formation of a new government in Mali, and said that the prime minister’s removal “underline[s] the need for the rapid deployment of an African stabilisation force”.

But Gilles Yabi, west Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, said that the proposed deployment of regional troops, which is already behind schedule, would be further delayed as Mr Diarra had been an important interlocutor with Ecowas and the international community.

“As long as there is no clear and legitimate political power in Bamako, it’s very difficult to see any progress in the north at a military or political level,” he said.

Mr Diarra, an astrophysicist who previously worked for Nasa and Microsoft, was named prime minister in April. His appointment was championed by Ecowas, and approved by Mr Sanogo. An interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, was also installed, creating three centres of power.

Initially, Mr Diarra kept the military onside by frequently consulting the former junta leaders. In recent months, however, he operated with increasing autonomy and was seen by some critics as building a political base for himself with a view to future elections.

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