BAMAKO Mali's neighbors could soon lift economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed on the West African country with the aim of forcing last month's coup leaders to quit power, a regional mediator said after talks with the junta leader on Thursday.
The 15-member West African bloc ECOWAS this week shut the borders of the landlocked country and denied it access to funds from the regional central bank, moves that could start to strangle the economy of Africa's third-ranked gold producer in days.
Neighbors including Ivory Coast and Niger see the departure of the junta as a precondition for offering help in tackling a Tuareg-led rebellion, which in the past week has seized key northern towns in its bid to carve out a desert homeland.
Companions-in-arms to the Tuaregs are Islamist units with links to al Qaeda whose aim is to impose sharia or Islamic law across the whole of Mali, which mostly follows a moderate form of Islam.
Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole held talks with coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo and later told Malian television:
"We are going to do everything so that these sanctions are not only suspended but completely removed. We are getting there ...
"I can assure you that the captain is aware and taking measures. He will soon make some announcements in that direction," added Bassole, whose country represents ECOWAS as a mediator in the crisis.
ECOWAS wants Sanogo and his junta to step down immediately, a call he has sought to deflect with an offer to launch an open-ended national convention on a transition back to civilian rule.
No immediate comment was available from the junta, which has set up headquarters in the ramshackle military barracks on the outskirts of the capital Bamako from which the army mutiny was launched two weeks ago.
Both the coup and the rebellion reflected widespread dissatisfaction with a decade of President Amadou Toumani Toure's rule, seen as failing to address poverty in the north and then to deal firmly with a rebellion boosted by arms and men returning from Libya's conflict.
The rebels announced they had completed a military push aimed at creating the state of "Azawad" on the edge of the Sahara after exploiting the chaotic aftermath of the coup.
"Following the complete liberation of the territory of Azawad and given the strong wish of the international community, ... the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has unilaterally declared the end of its military operations as of midnight Thursday, April 5," said a message posted on the rebel website www.mnla.net .
The statement called for international protection of the "Azawad people against any aggression from Mali" - an implicit declaration of intent to secede, a goal that African nations and world bodies have unanimously rejected.
Meanwhile the ECOWAS bloc ordered army chiefs to assemble a force to go on standby to enter a country that analysts fear has become a security vacuum ready to be exploited by al Qaeda cells and smugglers.
At the meeting of regional army chiefs, Ivory Coast's acting defence minister, Paul Koffi Koffi, said the 3,000-strong force had to find ways to "secure a return to constitutional rule and, on the other hand, stop the rebel advance".
However, for the time being it exists only on paper, and nations have yet to pledge troops.
NO FRENCH TROOPS
While former colonial power France has ruled out sending troops, President Nicolas Sarkozy left open the door to some form of intervention under strict conditions.
"France cannot envisage any intervention without the regional powers first trying to calm the situation, and unless there was a U.N. Security Council mandate," he told reporters in Paris.
So far, the trade sanctions have prompted panic buying in the capital Bamako but have not had time to make a real dent in local food and fuel supplies.
However, aid groups on Thursday said the measures risked compounding an already dire humanitarian situation on the ground because of the fighting and this year's harsh drought. The rebel-held northern towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu have all suffered extensive looting.
"All the food and medicine stored by major aid agencies has been looted and most of the aid workers have fled," Gaetan Mootoo, Amnesty International's researcher on West Africa, said .
Amnesty cited witness accounts of abductions of local women and girls by armed men, but it was not immediately possibly to verify the accounts.
The Aid agency Oxfam warned in a statement that sanctions were a "blunt instrument" that could hurt efforts to help some 3.5 million Malians facing food shortages after the failure of last year's rains in the Sahel region.
(Additional reporting by John Irish and Catherine Bremer in Paris; Ange Aboa in Abidjan; Christian Lowe in Algiers; Writing by David Lewis and Mark John; Editing by Alison Williams)