ABUJA West Africa's 15-nation ECOWAS bloc threatened on Monday to impose new sanctions on Mali's coup leaders and their allies, accusing them of blocking a return to civilian rule and further destabilizing the divided nation.
Mali's neighbors and donors are furious that the officers who led a March 22 coup are still meddling in politics despite a pledge to stand down. They have also criticized the coup leaders for failing to tackle separatist and al Qaeda-linked rebels in control of the north.
Neighbors are looking to send a 3,000-strong military force to Mali but the deployment hinges partly on ending a political stand-off in the capital Bamako. The coup leaders' CNRDRE group last week resisted a call by ECOWAS to extend the mandate of the caretaker president which is due to expire in a week's time.
"The ECOWAS Commission is closely monitoring the situation and will not allow any individuals or groups to hold the transition to ransom," the bloc said in statement.
"It wishes once more to warn that failure on the part of the CNRDRE and their civilian allies to clearly reaffirm their commitment to the transitional arrangement in the next few days, and to refrain from any further interference with the arrangement, will be met with the immediate reinstatement of the targeted sanctions," it added.
Mid-ranking army officers seized power in March in protest at the government's failure to end a Tuareg-led rebellion in the north, but the coup backfired and triggered a lightning advance by rebels who now control two-thirds of the country.
The twin crises have led to disruptions in the local gold sector in Africa's third largest producer.
Mali's neighbors already imposed foreign asset freezes and travel bans after the power grab but they were lifted after junta chief Captain Amadou Sanogo last month formally stood down to allow Dioncounda Traore to take over as interim leader.
Yet Traore's stint in charge has been overshadowed by the military maintaining its grip on much of day-to-day power in the country and uncertainty over who should take charge once his 40-day mandate set out by the constitution runs out.
Backers of Sanogo say he should take the helm given the crisis in the north and the public's lack of confidence in the local political class - a proposition that regional leaders and Western donors have firmly rejected.
ECOWAS mediators left Bamako at the weekend after five days of failed talks aimed at breaking the deadlock. Sanogo suggested on Monday a national convention of political and civic society groups decide who should take charge of the country.
But in a statement issued on May 11, the United States underscored international frustrations with the coup leaders. The U.S. State Department called on Sanogo to step aside and allow for the full return to civilian rule.
It said the coup leaders had undermined democracy and hampered the West African nation's ability to respond to the humanitarian crisis in northern Mali.
"We hold the (CNRDRE) directly responsible for the increasing suffering of the Malian people," Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.
The northern part of Mali is now in the hands of a mix of Tuareg separatist rebels and Islamist groups, some of which are closely collaborating with regional al Qaeda-cells.
The United States, which is one of Mali's top donors and had spent millions of dollars on counter-terrorism training, has already imposed sanctions on Sanogo and cut all non-humanitarian aid.
(Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Rosalind Russell)