The self-declared leader of a military coup in Mali has appeared in a recorded interview on state television to call for calm, and deny reports that soldiers had looted petrol stations and hijacked cars in the capital, Bamako.
"I call on all Malians to stop the pillaging. The acts of vandalism are not from our soldiers. It is not their mission, it is not their fight," said Amadou Sanogo, an army captain, in the interview broadcast late on Friday.
"You can buy a [soldier's] uniform in the market. What makes you think it is not other people who are doing this to damage the image of our cause?" Sanogo added.
The situation remained tense and confused, with reports of sporadic gunfire in the capital, 48 hours after the coup against President Amadou Toumani Toure.
Rumours swirled of an imminent counter-coup led by Toure loyalists and that Sanogo had been killed, a suggestion denied on state TV.
"We assure you that everything is fine," a statement from the coup's leaders on Friday said. "We invite you to go about your daily business as normal."
Adama Quindo, a Bamako resident, told the Reuters news agency: "People are afraid because of the soldiers. Often [they take] what is in the car or they make you get out and take the car or sometimes the soldiers themselves just break into shops."
Although most shops, petrol stations and businesses were closed in Bamako, some residents ventured out in search of necessities.
Residents said looting had caused shortages and fuel prices had doubled to over $2.60 (1,300 CFA francs) a litre in about 24 hours.
The African Union meanwhile said it had received assurances that Toure was safe, even though his whereabouts remain unknown.
"We have been told that the president is safe, protected by a certain number of loyalists," AU Commission head Jean Ping told reporters after a meeting of the bloc's Peace and Security Council in Addis Ababa.
"The president is in Mali for sure. The assurances we are getting from those that are protecting him is that he is not far from Bamako," Ping said.
The AU suspended Mali's membership after the coup earlier in the week, which has left the West African nation in limbo and jangled nerves in a region suffering aftershocks from last year's Libyan war.
A joint mission of the AU and the West African regional bloc ECOWAS arrived in Bamako on Friday for negotiations with the rebels, Paul Lolo, the chairman of the Peace and Security Council, told Al Jazeera on Saturday.
"[The mission] is in negotiations with the rebels and it is our hope that they will listen to reason and return Mali to constitutional order without delay," he said.
"This [coup] has been an insurgency, a siezure of power by force. There was a legitimate government in Mali. That government is still legitimate in our view because that is the government we know according to our instruments."
Lolo said the coup leaders had to step aside to ensure Mali moved forward in an orderly manner, but "direct intervention in a military sense is not contemplated at the moment," he added.
This came as Zimbabwe's government on Saturday said that its foreign minister, Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, and two other government officials were stranded in Mali because of the coup.
"He [Mumbengegwi] has touched base and indicated that they are safe," George Charamba, the government spokesman, told the AFP news agency. "He is in a hotel which cannot be named for security reasons."
Kenya's Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula was also stranded by the coup, his government said on Thursday.
The coup's leaders have sought to capitalise on popular dissatisfaction at Toure's handling of a rebellion by northern Taureg fighters, who have been fighting since mid-January for an independent north.
Officers led by Sanogo toppled Toure on Thursday because, they said, his government had not adequately supported the Malian army's fight against the advancing rebellion in the north.
But the coup leaders looked isolated as a coalition of political parties condemned the coup and called for new elections, which had previously been scheduled for April.
"The signatories ... condemn this forceful takeover which is a major setback for our democracy," 10 parties including ADEMA, the largest in parliament, said in a joint declaration.
The Tuareg political wing meanwhile said it was ready to negotiate with Mali's leadership, but with certain conditions.
Hama Ag Mahmoud, a spokesperson for the MNLA, said the president must have the backing of the people and political groups.
He added that the group only wanted control of northern Mali, which makes up part of the region known as Azawad, along with areas of Mauritania, Algeria and Niger.
"All we want is quite simply the occupation of the entire Azawad territory. We don't have any intention to go further than that. We don't want to create any problems to this young power, nor to the old regime," Mahmoud said.
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|Allen L. Jasson|