Malian security forces have fired tear gas and used water cannon to disperse protesters who camped out at a square in the capital, renewing calls for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to step down.
Thousands of people had gathered at Bamako’s Independence Square on Tuesday after an opposition coalition resumed anti-government protests as talks mediated by regional leaders to resolve the weeks-long political crisis stalled.
Clashes began about 06:00 GMT on Wednesday after police arrived at the square and fired several rounds of tear gas at hundreds of protesters who had remained there overnight.
“There was panic. The demonstrators scrambled for safety. Some were trampled,” Rokia Diarra, a local resident, told Reuters news agency.
Photos on social media showed the square hazy with tear gas.
“This is a provocation from the regime,” said Nouhou Sarr, from the so-called June 5 Movement, the opposition coalition behind the anti-government protests. “Rounds of tear gas will not deter us.”
Although dissatisfaction over Mali’s financial troubles, corruption and worsening security situation has been simmering for a while, the spark for the current crisis was a decision by the Constitutional Court in April to overturn the results of parliamentary polls for 31 seats, in a move that saw candidates with Keita’s party get re-elected.
The Human Rights Watch said in a report on Wednesday that security forces have used excessive force against protesters. The rights group said at least 14 people were killed and more than 300 wounded, including demonstrators, bystanders and security personnel, during three days of unrest in July.
The West African ECOWAS bloc stepped in last month to mediate, with its heads of government suggesting the formation of a new unity government to end the crisis while sticking by Keita.
But the June 5 Movement – a disparate alliance of political, social and civil-society groups – has repeatedly rejected the proposals, sticking to its core demand for Keita’s departure.
On Monday, Keita, who first came to power in 2013, swore in nine new judges to the Constitutional Court, part of a suggestion by the 15-member ECOWAS for resolving the dispute.
Mali has struggled to regain stability since a 2012 uprising by Tuaregs in the north was hijacked by al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
The insecurity has spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, with groups exploiting the poverty of marginalised communities and inflaming tensions between ethnic groups.
The presence of thousands of foreign troops has failed to stem the violence, while allegations of abuse and extrajudicial killings by Malian forces have perpetuated deep-rooted mistrust and enmity in parts of the country with little government presence otherwise.
Al Jazeera and news agencies