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President grilled by military wives

As Mali's army confronts attacks from ethnic Tuareg separatists, the country's president is battling some tough critics - the wives of military personnel who grilled him for nearly two hours on state television about the government's failure to put down the rebellion.

One after another, the women confronted President Amadou Toumani Toure, questioning him on all aspects of the crisis that began last month.

"A soldier in battle should not run out of ammunition and there shouldn't be shortages of food for soldiers either," one woman complained. "People say that you are the real head of the rebels and that you help the rebels attack Mali," another woman told the president.

Last week's rare exchange, and the fact that the government allowed it to be broadcast, indicates how far the country's leader is willing to go to try to contain anger over his handling of the recent uprising, which has killed dozens of members of Mali's armed forces.

Mr Toure, known by his initials ATT, is a former army officer who led a transition administration after a popular uprising toppled Mali's authoritarian leader Moussa Traore in 1991. Mr Toure then left the political stage for 10 years. In 2002, he resigned from the army and went on to win democratic elections. He is due to step down from office in June after 10 years in power.

The fact that he would allow the humbling encounter to be broadcast on state television shows how desperate the government is to improve the way it communicates. It also hints at the government's difficulties in containing the uprising that began January 17.

"I was surprised he allowed himself to be questioned by these women, but at the same time I was extremely happy he did," said Adam Thiam, a columnist for Le Republicain newspaper in Bamako. "The president had to do something, there were so many rumours going around the country that needed to be addressed," Mr Thiam said.

During the exchange, Mr Toure asked people to stop spreading the rumour that he is connected to the rebels, and he promised the military wives and mothers to do everything he can for Mali's military.

"Everything that needs to be done will be done," Mr Toure said. "And if we need to go to war, we'll go to war," Mr Toure added, addressing a complaint that he has been slow to order a counteroffensive.

The Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic people spread across the Sahara Desert, have risen up against the central government in Mali several times since the country's independence from France in 1960.

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