ABIDJAN The West African regional bloc ECOWAS said on Thursday it would send troops to Mali and Guinea-Bissau to help swiftly reinstate civilian rule after their coups, and threatened sanctions if junta leaders try to cling to power.
The decision was one of the most forceful moves by the group in recent years, and won the immediate support of the European Union as a way to reinforce democratic reform in a part of the world known for military coups and civil wars.
"Overall, we're very supportive of ECOWAS's strong response to the situation in both countries. It's a response that is shared by the international community," said Nick Westcott, EU Managing Director for Africa.
Soldiers in Mali, a country once viewed as a poster-child of democracy in Africa, overthrew the government in March, while the army of the tiny coastal nation of Guinea-Bissau seized power and derailed elections with a putsch on April 12.
ECOWAS said it expected both Mali and Guinea-Bissau to hold presidential elections within 12 months, according to a statement issued after a meeting of heads of state in Ivory Coast's economic capital Abidjan.
It called on junta leaders to release people detained during the coups and ensure the safety of ousted officials, and threatened sanctions, ranging from targeted individual measures to economic action, if its conditions were not met.
"The heads of state and of government decided to take all the necessary measures in order to assist Mali in the re-establishment of its unity and of its territorial integrity," said the statement, read to ECOWAS officials and journalists late on Thursday.
"To this effect the heads of state and of government instructed the commission to begin with immediate effect the deployment of the standby force of ECOWAS conforming to the approved mandate."
It said it would also send a force to Guinea-Bissau.
RISK OF CONFLICT
The body, whose military and economic heavyweight is Nigeria, gave no details on the size of the deployments, but a Western diplomat told Reuters the contingent bound for Mali could number between 3,000 and 5,000.
Mali's coup took place as a Tuareg rebellion raged in its vast desert north and opened the door for the rebels, strengthened by fighters and weapons from Libya's war, to seize control of the region in the days that followed.
The junta that deposed president Amadou Toumani Toure weeks ahead of elections meant to replace him has since named a transitional government, marking one of the first steps toward the restoration of constitutional order.
Toure fled the country for neighboring Senegal.
In Guinea-Bissau, soldiers detained ex-prime minister Carlos Gomes Junior weeks ahead of a presidential election run-off that he was expected to win against rival Kumba Yala. They also detained the interim president, Raimundo Pereira.
The country's shadowy self-styled Military Command last week announced plans to set up a transitional government charged with organizing elections sometime in 2014, but the proposal was rejected by the United Nations, ECOWAS and the African Union.
ECOWAS sources told Reuters on Wednesday the regional body planned to send a 638-strong regional force to Guinea Bissau within days to protect state institutions and people - an idea that diplomats said risked triggering conflict.
A spokesman for the Military Command, Daha Bana na Walna, said last week that any foreign force arriving on Guinea-Bissau soil would be treated as occupiers. The Military Command sent a delegation to Thursday's ECOWAS summit, but there was no word on whether the junta would accept the ECOWAS force.
The former Portuguese colony has suffered several army uprisings since independence in 1974, but this latest has been a setback to Western efforts to combat drugs cartels using the country as a stopoff point to Europe.
Armed Forces Chief Antonio Indjai is widely believed to have orchestrated the coup, though the Military Command has said he was deposed and Indjai himself has denied involvement.
"Experience has shown that as long as the military have a stranglehold on the politics of the country, there will be no effective reform, no effective civilian administration, and no effective efforts to combat the drug trafficking which is known to be going on," the EU's Westcott said.
"Now is finally an opportunity to remove the military, but clearly it's reluctant to go voluntarily."
(Reporting by Joe Bavier; Writing and additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Kevin Liffey)