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Mali: M5 opposition rally in Bamako in support of Colonel Assimi Goita

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Several hundred Supporters of Mali's M5 opposition movement assembled at a central square in the capital Bamako on Friday to commemorate the launch of the mass protests last year tthat eventually culminated in the ousting of then president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on August 18, 2020.

The apparently long-planned rally comes after Colonel Assimi Goita pushed out the interim president and prime minister on May 24.

This is the second coup d'état in nine months spearheaded by the colonel -- and although he has garnered support from the M5 activists, his latest move has parked international outcry.

France on Friday suspended joint military operations with Malian forces, and stopped providing military advice.

The former coloniser has thousands of troops stationed in the Sahel to help fight jihadist violence that erupted in Mali in 2012 and now threatens the region.

Kadiatou Sangaré, a M5-RFP supporter does not believe the presence of French troops is necessary to keep jihadists at bay.

"If the French army wants to leave, good luck. If the jihadists have to come to Bamako, they will come to Bamako, we will manage it as we can.

"But in the end we will have a definitive solution because when Germany occupied France, the French managed, they got away with it and now they are among the best. If we have to fight for our country... This is our home, we won't go anywhere, we'll fight here and we'll succeed."

Mohamed Diarra, another protester, scoffs at the perceived neocolonial approach of France towards Mali.

"Macron is just someone who boasts. We are already a sovereign people, it is not up to Macron, six thousand kilometres from Mali, to decide the fate of the Malians. 

"We have given France a chance since the 1960s. There are agreements that bind us, but France has not been able to put them into practice, we are a sovereign state, we have the choice of partnership with whom we want, it is not up to France to impose itself."

On the other side of the spectrum, Goita's actions have resulted in the suspension of Mali from both the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The colonel is expected to be formally appointed as Mali's transitional president on Monday, which would pave the way towards naming a civilian prime minister -- a key international demand and a move that some argue could soften international criticism of the second coup. 

Goita might assign the position of prime minister to a leading M5 figure. 

- 'Guarantees' -

France's defence ministry said suspending its military cooperation was a "conservative and temporary measure" pending "guarantees" that the ruling military will stage elections in February 2022.

Mali's armed forces are poorly equipped in their fight with the highly mobile insurgents.

They depend crucially on airpower and surveillance provided by the 5,100-man Barkhane force.

The French mission has jet fighters and drones at a base near Niamey, the capital of neighbouring Niger, as well as access to French military satellites and intelligence provided by allies.

French army spokesman Frederic Barbry told AFP that Barkhane troops will continue to operate in Mali but joint operations with the country's military have been suspended.

This also applies to military training and to the French-initiated international alliance of special forces, known as Takuba, Barby added.

A Western diplomat, who requested anonymity, said that French troops are in practice no longer leaving their bases.

French forces will nonetheless continue to launch air strikes on jihadist leaders, the diplomat added.

Mali's junta did not comment on France's decision.

- Influential imam -

On August 18 last year, Goita led army officers in ousting elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, following mass protests over perceived corruption and the bloody jihadist insurgency.

M5 had spearheaded the protests against Keita in 2020, but was subsequently sidelined in the army-dominated post-coup administration.

This transitional government pledged to reform the constitution by October, and stage elections in February next year.

But the M5 became a vocal critic, calling the transitional government a "disguised military regime."

There has been a rapprochement between the group and the army since the May 24 coup, however.

Goita has said he would prefer to name an M5 figure as his prime minister and the group put forward one of its cadres, Choguel Maiga, as a candidate.

But that choice has in turn raised questions about Mali's future, in particular concerning the potential role of religious leader Mahmoud Dicko, who is close to Maiga.

The influential imam was viewed as the figurehead of the M5 during the anti-Keita protests, but later distanced himself from the movement.

Maiga is also a vocal critic of the 2015 Algiers peace accord, a shaky agreement between the central government and several armed groups.

The deal, which has never been fully implemented, is seen as crucial to ending Mali's grinding conflict.

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