BAMAKO (Reuters) - West African leaders will decide on Monday 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 on Monday 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 No. 3 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, already awash with Islamists, traffickers and bandits.
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 early on Monday of moves to implement the measures.
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, who heads ECOWAS, said he spoke to Mali’s junta chief on Sunday 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 neighbors 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.
Ben Cassabane, a Ivorian military officer, said Mali’s border with Ivory Coast remained open on Monday morning.
“We haven’t received any orders to close (the border) but we will wait to see if that will change after the ECOWAS meeting,” he said.
Coup leader Sanogo cited Toure’s poor handling of the 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 to fall as army units fled on Sunday.
Hama Ag Mahmoud, a member of the MNLA’s political wing, said the group did not plan to push further south. “Our aim today is not to go beyond the borders of Azawad,” he told Reuters.
“We don’t want to give anyone the impression that we are war-mongers so, once we have freed the areas we target, the job is done,” he added.
Ag Mahmoud rejected any MNLA rebel links with Islamist groups but witnesses in Kidal and Gao reported signs of Islamist fighters having collaborated with the MNLA in the advance.
Residents in the regional capital of Kidal, the northernmost of the towns captured, reported the black flags of Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Edine movement, which wants to impose sharia law across Mali, flying in many parts of town.
Music had been banned from being broadcast on radio stations and residents were no longer allowed to wear Western-style clothes, one resident told Reuters, asking not to be named.
A witness in Gao said many symbols of the state or Western influence - including local bureaus of aid agencies and hotels serving alcohol - were ransacked by Islamists on Sunday.
Ouattara said the West African leaders assembled in Senegal would discuss the crisis in Mali’s north.
“We strongly support Mali’s territorial integrity and we will put all necessary measures so as to end the rebellion and so that Mali can regain its territorial integrity,” he said.
ECOWAS has been mulling for weeks how to help Bamako fight off the rebellion but the bloc has no standing army and assistance from the region and Western partners has been effectively blocked by the coup.
Additional reporting by Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott. Adama Diarra in Bamako; Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy