By Tiemoko Diallo Adama Diarra
(Reuters) - Gunfire rang out in Mali's capital Bamako on Wednesday in the third day of clashes between the military junta and soldiers loyal to the ousted president, forcing residents to flee.
A Malian security source told Reuters the junta's troops were asking people to leave their buildings as they searched for loyalist fighters, including suspected foreign mercenaries, who had mounted a counter-coup attempt.
"We're looking for red berets," yelled one junta soldier, before firing his rifle into the air.
Shooting was also heard from the direction of the state broadcaster building, scene of some of the heaviest fighting since Monday but which has remained under the junta's control.
"The evacuation is meant to help the work of the soldiers who are in the process of sweeping the city in search of mercenaries that have infiltrated the population," the security source said, asking not to be named.
A Reuters witness said firing also broke out in downtown Bamako, where administrative buildings were being evacuated and residents were fleeing on foot and by car.
Members of the red beret presidential guard unit attacked important sites in and around Bamako late on Monday in an apparent attempt to unseat the military junta that has been in power since a coup on March 22.
Residents said heavy and automatic weapons fire was heard coming from the red berets training camp in the Sebenicoro neighbourhood, west of Bamako, after a column of junta tanks and armored cars moved to seize the camp.
"We hear gunfire everywhere, I have just heard heavy weapons. They carrying out a mopping-up operation in the last pocket of the red berets resistance," said a resident of the neighbourhood.
PM CALLS FOR CALM
Mali's newly appointed transition Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra called for calm in a statement on national television and defended the move by the army. "We have seen an attempt in the past 48 hours to destabilise the country. This has temporarily ended, but not complete with the victory of our army and security forces," Diarra said.
"I understand that there are still some elements roaming about," the former NASA and Microsoft executive said, adding that it was due to the pockets of resistance that the army had deployed troops in Bamako.
At least 27 people were killed in the clashes, according to medical sources and Reuters witnesses, but fighting died down by Tuesday afternoon when junta soldiers overran the presidential guard barracks in the capital.
Junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo has said the counter-coup attempt was backed by foreign fighters, and state television showed images on Wednesday of captured soldiers holding up Burkinabe and Ivorian identification cards.
Regional bloc ECOWAS, which has said it plans to send a force of 3,000 or more troops to Mali to help restore constitutional order, denied on Tuesday rumours it had sent commandos to assist the presidential guard.
The coup, which derailed an April election meant to replace President Amadou Toumani Toure, has been internationally condemned and the renewed clashes marked a serious setback for early efforts to restore order.
Heads of state from ECOWAS are due to meet in Dakar on Thursday to discuss the situation in Mali, as well as in Guinea-Bissau, which also suffered a recent coup. Five members of Mali's junta have also flown to Burkina Faso to meet President Blaise Campaore, who has taken on a regional mediator role, a Burkinabe government source said.
The political turmoil in Mali coincides with a Tuareg and Islamist rebel uprising in the vast northern desert that has split the country in two and muddied regional efforts to restore stability to the gold producer nation.
(Additional reporting by Cheikh Amadou Diouara in Bamako, Mathieu Bonkoungou in Ouagadougou, and Bate Felix in Dakar; Writing by Richard Valdmanis and Bate Felix; Editing by Maria Golovnina)