Coup leaders in Mali Thursday ordered all borders closed after taking over key buildings in Bamako and ousting President Amadou Toumani Toure overnight, sparking international concern and condemnation.
The renegade army officers, calling themselves the National Committee for the Establishment of Democracy, said their move was prompted by government's "inability" to put down a Tuareg-led insurrection in the north.
Sporadic gunfire rang out in the capital as condemnation poured in from western powers and the African Union urged "the mutineers immediately to put an end" to the country's first coup in 21 years.
France suspended cooperation with its former colony, urging soldiers not to harm Toure who was at a military camp under protection from his elite paratrooper guard.
Washington called "for the immediate restoration of constitutional rule."
While politically stable, smouldering troubles in Mali's north where light-skinned Tuareg tribes have long felt ignored by a southern government and Al-Qaeda has taken deep root, turned the region into a tinderbox.
This was ignited when the demise of Muammar Gaddafi sparked the return of hundreds of heavily-armed Tuareg rebels who had fought for him in Libya and were ready to take up a decades-long struggle for independence.
What began as a mutiny over the government's response to the rekindled Tuareg insurrection in the north on Wednesday afternoon turned into a full-blown coup as soldiers seized control of the presidential palace and the state broadcaster.
A few dozen soldiers appeared on the screens after hours of music videos played in a loop. Their spokesman Lieutenant Amadou Konare said the takeover was a result of a "lack of adequate material to defend the nation".
Claiming to represent the nation's defence forces, Konare said the junta "solemnly commits to restore power to a democratically-elected president as soon as national unity and territorial integrity are re-established."
The man presented as their leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, said a curfew would be imposed but did not specify hours and in a subsequent televised announcement, the junta said all borders were closed "until further notice".
Renegade soldiers in the northeastern city of Gao also detained their military chiefs to support the coup.
Little traffic circulated a day after wild shooting by mutineering soldiers sowed panic in the capital of the landlocked west African state and Malians were left disappointed at the blow to their democracy.
"We are worried for the future of our democracy. I am against this coup d'etat. We need a return to constitutional order," said motorcyclist Moussa Kante.
A female student, Nady, said: "Democracy does not mean anarchy. Calm must return quickly."
Toure was initially holed up in the palace as shots were traded outside but he managed to flee the premises.
"The president is in Bamako, he is not at an embassy. He is in a military camp where he is in command," a military source said on condition of anonymity, adding the elite "Red Beret" paratroopers were keeping watch.
The president is himself a former soldier who led the ouster of president-for-life Moussa Traore in 1991 before handing power to civilians. He later won an election in 2002 and was re-elected in 2007.
Under his leadership Mali—which has battled successive Tuareg rebellions since independence and more recently Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—has since been hailed as a growing democratic success in the region.
The Tuareg, many of whom fled drought and discontent under a southern government to work and fight for Gaddafi in Libya, returned heavily armed, battle-experienced and jobless after last year's conflict.
In mid-January they launched a fresh rebellion for independence of what they call Azawad, their stomping ground which makes up the vast desert northern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation.
The fighting has seen up to 200,000 flee their homes, creating a humanitarian disaster in a region gripped by drought and food shortages.
Mali has become a new frontline in Africa and Western powers concerned that the troubled north country could become a safe haven for Al Qaeda were quick to call for order to be restored.
"We believe that grievances should be addressed through dialogue, not through violence," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon voiced "deep concern", as did neighbouring Algeria, Bamako's main partner in the fight against Al Qaeda. Continental powerhouses Nigeria and South Africa also condemned the coup.
The African Union called the coup "a significant setback for Mali".
Former colonial power France, which has a military presence in several neighbouring countries, said a fresh election was the urgent next task at hand.