BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali's coup leader responded to the threat of sanctions Friday by saying he plans to hold elections and rapidly return the country to its established order but gave no timetable for immediate action, falling short of demands by West African countries.
Mali's neighbors on Thursday gave the captain a 72-hour deadline to hand power back to civilians or else face severe consequences, including the closing of borders to the landlocked nation and the freezing of the country's account at the regional central bank.
If the measures go into effect, they will be among the toughest imposed on a state in West Africa, where coups, or attempted coups, are still a near-yearly occurrence.
Amid the turmoil Tuareg rebels in the country's north pushed into the strategic town of Kidal on Friday, according to Lt. Samba Timbo, the chief of security for junta leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo. Kidal, a garrison town, is a major prize for the Tuareg separatists who launched a rebellion in January with the aim of carving out a homeland for themselves in Mali's desolate north.
In the capital of Bamako, Sanogo emerged for the first time since the threat the sanctions were announced, telling reporters that he "understands" the position of the regional body, the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS. At the same time, he said he wanted ECOWAS "to deepen their analysis of the situation in Mali. We ask them to analyze the reasons that led to this coup."
Sanogo grabbed power on March 21 after a mutiny at the military camp where he is based around 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the presidential palace. The mutiny was sparked over the ill-treatment of soldiers sent to fight the nascent rebellion in the country's north. Troops have been sent without enough equipment, and the junta claims that many were executed by the Tuareg mercenaries after running out of ammunition.
Sanogo asked the regional body to support him, saying the junta seized control of the country with the plan of "holding a rapid process of normalization, organizing free and transparent elections and a rapid restoration of the state." He omitted to make clear his timeline, even as the threat of sanctions loom.
In downtown Bamako, lines 50-people deep were forming outside commercial banks. In the Niarela neighborhood, the branch of Ecobank told patrons they could not take out more than 500,000 francs (roughly $1,000).
Ibrahima Kante, an economist, was one of the people lined up outside the branch hoping to take out his savings to weather the coming sanctions. "I think the banks are going to close because ECOWAS took a decision to impose sanctions on Mali. It's important that we managed to get a little bit of money out before that happens," Kante said. "I'm happy with this decision though because it will mean that the junta has to leave. If they don't leave, the population is going to rise up against them."
In Abidjan where the regional body met to issue its threat of sanctions on Thursday, a senior advisor to Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara said that the captain's reaction is "basically the equivalent of telling us (expletive) you.'" The official who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press said that ECOWAS would go ahead with the sanctions as early as Monday, unless "we see a dramatic turnaround by the junta."
He added that the regional leaders had agreed to meet a junta delegation on Saturday in the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso, whose president has offered to act as a mediator. Members of the military committee leading the country since the coup, including Lt. Timbo, said that ECOWAS' demands are unreasonable because it is impossible to organize elections in the north in light of the uprising.
If the sanctions are applied, they are likely to suffocate Mali's economy. The country is landlocked and it imports its petroleum products from nearby Ivory Coast. With the border sealed, the country will run out of gasoline within a matter of weeks, maybe even days. Generators that provide electricity to hotels, businesses and private residences will stop working.
As the possibility of sanctions hung over the capital, anti-western sentiment was running high, because the junta is accusing France and the United States of being behind the severe measures. A correspondent for Radio France was stopped at a checkpoint outside the four-star Laico Hotel where he was staying.
Junta officers handcuffed him for hours and forced him to his knees. They then said they would execute him, taking turns aiming an automatic weapon at him. He says he was held from around 10 p.m. Wednesday to around 6 a.m. Thursday, until the handcuffs cut into his wrists.
Associated Press writer Martin Vogl contributed to this report.