, BAMAKO, Mar 29 – A bid by west African leaders to seek a return to democratic rule in Mali fell apart Thursday when the team turned back mid-air after a pro-coup demonstration in Bamako airport.
The delegation, led by Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara who is also chief of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), was due to meet the junta at midday to wrest a deal on a return to constitutional order.
But shortly after Ouattara left Abidjan, scores of pro-junta supporters swarmed the runway at Bamako’s airport to prevent the arrival of the team.
Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo asked them to let “our African brothers” arrive but it emerged soon afterwards that the presidents were no longer coming.
Ouattara “was in the Malian airspace, he turned back”, said a source at the Bamako airport.
Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore, who was appointed chief mediator, was also “no longer coming”, said a security source.
Benin’s Boni Yayi, current head of the African Union, had also abandoned the mission, said a source in his delegation.
The regional heavyweights were due to regroup in Abidjan for an emergency meeting after the incident, according to sources in the Burkinabe and Ivorian presidencies.
The 15-nation ECOWAS suspended Mali during a meeting on Tuesday, following in the footsteps of the African Union as the international community roundly condemned the takeover of a democratic government on March 22.
President Amadou Toumani Toure was chased out of power just five weeks before the end of his term in office ahead of elections on April 29, by soldiers angry at his handling of a two-month old Tuareg rebellion in the north.
The Malian military has been overwhelmed by the heavily-armed, battle-hardened desert warriors who returned from fighting in Libya last year.
Toure told AFP Wednesday that he was safe in Bamako and not being held prisoner by the putschists, who shot their way to the presidency and arrested several government ministers.
In a bid to consolidate their power, the junta has unveiled their own constitution. While they promise they will not run in future polls, no date for a return to democracy has been set.
ECOWAS has said its regional troops are on standby and it has not ruled out the use of force.
Standard Bank emerging markets analyst Samir Gadio said that economic sanctions may be more effective in resolving the crisis.
“This is because Mali is a landlocked economy and relies on neighbouring countries (primarily Ivory Coast) for fuel imports and exports.”
As a member of the west African monetary union, if the common central bank cut Mali off “the fragile Malian banking and financial system would be brought to its knees within weeks and the junta left without cash to service public sector salaries.”
Mali meanwhile remains divided over the coup. The majority of the political class has called for a return to constitutional order, but a pro-junta camp has also formed and on Wednesday several thousand marched in favour of Sanogo.
The Tuareg have long claimed the north as their homeland, and despite a call by the junta for peace talks, they are exploiting the power vacuum in the south to push forward with their offensive.
The European Union, the United States and other Western powers have cut off hundreds of millions of dollars of support to Mali — except for emergency aid to drought-hit regions of the country suffering food shortages.