Mali coup brings sanctions threat


West African leaders will decide today whether to impose sanctions on Mali after leaders of a military coup said they would return power to civilians in a bid to avert diplomatic and economic isolation.

A 72-hour deadline, set by West African bloc ECOWAS, for soldiers to start returning to barracks expired overnight as northern separatist rebels said they had completed a lightning push south, seizing three regional capitals in as many days as Mali's army units retreated.

A senior ECOWAS official accused the junta of "buying time" with the promises but said a decision over sanctions would only be taken at a summit held on Dakar today on the sidelines of the swearing-in of Senegal's new president, Macky Sall.

Last month's coup, weeks before President Amadou Toumani Toure was due to step down for elections, shattered the international reputation of stability and democracy that Africa's third-ranked gold producer had previously enjoyed. The push by rebels, whose ranks were swelled by fighters returning from the Libyan conflict, has also deepened insecurity across the Sahara-Sahel band.

France and Britain have advised their citizens to leave the country due to the insecurity.

"Captain Amadou Sanogo and his group are just buying time," Remi Ajibewa, head of political affairs and international cooperation at ECOWAS, told Reuters after the coup leader pledged to reinstate the constitution and all state institutions before holding an election.

"Apart from announcing the restoration of the 1992 Constitution they have not set out any timetable to hand over power to a democratically elected government in Mali," he added.

ECOWAS has threatened the closure of trade borders, diplomatic isolation and a freeze in funding from the regional central bank. However there was no sign earlier today of moves to implement the measures.

Ivory Coast president Alassane Ouattara, who heads ECOWAS, said he spoke to Mali's junta chief yesterday to thank him for the pledge to restore constitutional order but did not indicate if the move had been enough to ward off regional isolation.

The threat of sanctions underlines how seriously Mali's neighbours take a coup which they fear could trigger similar attempts in their own countries which have been blighted by decades of civil war and power grabs.

Coup leader Sanogo cited Mr Toure's poor handling of the northern separatist rebellion, with soldiers in remote areas lacking equipment, ammunition and food, as the main reason for the coup.Yet, since the military came to power, the MNLA rebels, seemingly operating alongside another group that wants to impose sharia law, have overrun the capitals of the three regions they want to seize to create an independent state called Azawad.

Timbuktu, after Kidal on Friday and Gao on Saturday, was the last capital to fall as army units fled on yesterday. Hama Ag Mahmoud, a member of the MNLA's political wing, said the group did not plan to push further south.