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Mali coup leader was trained by U.S. military, officers say

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/21/2020 Danielle Paquette
a man wearing a uniform: Col. Assimi Goita during a news conference confirming his position as the president of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, the military junta that has taken power in Mali, Aug. 19, 2020. © EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Col. Assimi Goita during a news conference confirming his position as the president of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, the military junta that has taken power in Mali, Aug. 19, 2020.

DAKAR, Senegal —The military officer who declared himself in charge of Mali after leading a coup that ousted the West African nation's president this week received training from the United States, according to military officers from both countries.

Col. Assimi Goita, who emerged Thursday as the head of the junta in power, worked for years with U.S. Special Operations forces focused on fighting extremism in West Africa. He spoke regularly with U.S. troops and attended U.S.-led training exercises, said the officers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Goita, who also received training from Germany and France, headed Mali’s special forces unit in the country’s restive central region, where fighters linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have established a stronghold that has alarmed global leaders.

“By making this intervention, we have put Mali first,” Goita said in a broadcast Thursday alongside top government officials. “Mali is in a sociopolitical and security crisis. There is no more room for mistakes.”

The U.S. Africa Command and the Defense Department did not immediately respond to questions about the nature of Goita’s training and relationship with U.S. troops.

“The United States strongly condemns the ongoing mutiny and any attempts at a military seizure of power,” Africa Command spokeswoman Nicole Kirschmann said in a statement.

It is not unusual for senior officers in the Malian military — a force of roughly 12,000 meant to protect a population of about 20 million — to receive training from the United States and other foreign allies.

“Malian officers are usually involved in several foreign trainings — meaning they may leave for Russia, go to France and then end up part of Flintlock,” a U.S. training exercise in West Africa, said Marc-André Boisvert, a former U.N. expert who has spent years researching Mali’s military.

Helping the nation’s troops fight rapidly spreading extremism is critical for regional stability, U.S. military officials said. Al-Qaeda and Islamic State loyalists have cooperated in West Africa in pushes to dominate the countryside in Mali, a country nearly twice the size of Texas.

“What we’ve seen is not just random acts of violence under a terrorist banner but a deliberate campaign that is trying to bring these various groups under a common cause,” Brig. Gen. Dagvin Anderson, head of the U.S. military’s Special Operations arm in Africa, told The Washington Post in February. “That larger effort then poses a threat to the United States.”

The coup came after months of protests in the capital, Bamako, which brought tens of thousands of Malians into the streets to demand the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.

Video showed people cheering as mutinous soldiers stormed Bamako on Tuesday and took Keïta, along with several of his top officers, into their custody.

The African Union, the United Nations, France and the United States swiftly condemned the rebellion, urging the coup leaders to release Keïta, whose term was due to end in 2023.

“A politically stable Mali is paramount and crucial to the stability of the sub-region,” Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari tweeted Thursday.

The protesters, led by an influential imam, Mahmoud Dicko, accused the 75-year-old Keïta of corruption, mismanaging the crumbling economy and allowing extremists to spread in the countryside. The embattled leader resigned on state television Wednesday, saying he wanted to avoid more bloodshed.

Mali’s new rulers, who call themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, said they aim to build a civilian-led transition government and hold a new election.

Goita, the junta’s leader, is a commander of the country’s Autonomous Special Forces Battalion, which is one of the first lines of defense against the extremists.

He had expressed frustration to colleagues about the rising violence in Mali, according to a former U.S. military officer who worked closely with him, sending out videos of torched villages on WhatsApp.

Goita, who is in his early 40s, spent most of his military career in the areas rife with extremists — the northern deserts and the central garrison towns. His spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The number of deaths from terrorism in the country, as well as in neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger, have skyrocketed in recent years, according to the United Nations, surpassing 4,000 in 2019.

Hundreds of Malian soldiers have died in the fight. They have also faced accusations of killing innocent villagers on the search for extremists, according to Human Rights Watch.

The leader of Mali’s last coup in 2012 — Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo — also received military guidance from the United States, including professional military education and basic officer training.

“The actions of the mutineers run contrary to everything that is taught in U.S. military schools, where students are exposed to American concepts of the role of a military in a free society,” Hilary F. Renner, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said at the time.

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