Bamako - Soldiers from Mali's ruling junta foiled a counter-coup bid by presidential guardsmen on Tuesday, overrunning their base in the capital and fending off their assaults on the airport and the state broadcaster.
The clashes in the West African state - a posterchild of African democracy before a March 22 putsch and a Tuareg rebellion thrust it into chaos - came as a setback to early international efforts to restore constitutional order.
France, Mali's former colonial ruler, said it was "extremely concerned" by the clashes and called for them to stop, while West African regional bloc ECOWAS said the fighting had delayed talks intended to guide its transition.
"Only by re-establishing civil order will the transitional government be able to deal with the situation it faces," a French foreign ministry spokesman said.
Members of the red beret presidential guard unit attacked important sites in and around Bamako late on Monday and into Tuesday in an apparent attempt to unseat the junta that has been in power since it ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure.
At least 27 people have been killed in the fighting, which centered on the state television broadcaster, the airport and the main camps of the rival military factions, according to medical sources and Reuters witnesses.
Fighting died down Tuesday afternoon after the junta took control of the presidential guard barracks in Bamako.
Dozens of residents near the presidential guard unit's camp, scene of heavy shooting since fighting broke out late on Monday, broke into applause as the junta soldiers entered the deserted compound firing their weapons into the air in celebration.
"The camp has fallen, it is empty and the red berets have left," a junta officer said, asking not to be named.
A Reuters witness said he counted at least 10 dead bodies in and around the camp, most wearing presidential guard uniforms. He said the wives of the soldiers that had been living in the barracks had fled to nearby mosques.
The junta issued a statement later on Tuesday saying it was in control of the state broadcaster, the airport and other important sites, and adding that the counter-coup bid had been backed by foreign fighters.
"The events yesterday were probably (caused) by mercenaries from elsewhere with backing from some paratroopers," junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, wearing a green beret and uniform and perched on a white sofa, said over state television.
The station broadcast images of captured fighters, including one that held up a Burkina Faso identification card after a junta soldier pulled on his ear and ordered him to present himself to the camera.
Sanogo urged remaining red berets to put down their weapons and hand themselves over to junta authorities.
TRANSITIONAL GOV'T CALLS FOR CALM, HOPE
Sanogo's junta overthrew Toure after an army mutiny driven by frustration over the government's handling of a Tuareg rebellion in the vast desert north that has since split the country in two.
The coup derailed an April election meant to replace Toure, and has been internationally condemned. West African regional bloc ECOWAS has said it plans to deploy more than 3,000 troops to oversee a transition back to democratic rule.
The renewed clashes marked a serious setback for the gold-producing West African nation after the junta had agreed to an interim government as a first step to restoring constitutional order after the coup.
Hamadoun Toure, spokesman for the transitional government, urged Malians to remain hopeful.
"The prime minister and government would like to urge people to stay calm and invites them stay hopeful. The PM would like to reassure them that he was taking all measures to restore normality," he said on state television.
Speaking to a local radio station overnight, Sanogo said the fighting broke out after he had sent some units to the presidential guard barracks to tell them that Malian forces should remain united during the transition.
"During the exchange between my guys and the paratroopers, some of them decided to battle us once and for all," he said.
"They tried to seize Kati (army base), take control of the radio and television and the airport. But we had been prepared. We managed to kill some and capture others."
An official at the emergency services of the Gabriel Toure hospital in Bamako said they had recorded 11 dead by gunshots and about 30 wounded as of Monday night. Another doctor at a hospital in Kati said they had recorded six deaths.
Djibril Bassole, Burkina Faso's foreign minister and an ECOWAS mediator in the crisis, said the bloc had sent no troops to Mali yet - denying rumours in Bamako that the regional body had dispatched commandos to assist the counter-coup.
"No decision has been taken in that light," Bassole told Reuters by telephone from Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou.
He said planned talks in Ouagadougou between the junta and ECOWAS mediators on Tuesday had been cancelled because a plane sent the previous day to collect junta officials had not been allowed to land in Bamako.
"As ECOWAS mediators, we are still available to continue the dialogue, which will help Mali normalise its political institutions and bring the army to submit itself to the authority of a civilian government," Bassole said.
The director of Bamako's airport told Reuters on Tuesday that it had been shut due to the fighting.