DAKAR, Apr 3 – West African leaders slapped crippling sanctions on Mali’s new junta ahead of emergency UN talks Tuesday on the troubled nation, half of which is now held by Tuareg rebels and Islamist fighters.
As Mali slid further into chaos under military rulers who seized power on March 22, France called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
“It’s on for tomorrow,” Mark Kornblau, spokesman for the US mission at the United Nations, said Monday.
His announcement came shortly after the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) tightened the stranglehold on the junta in a bid to force it to give up power.
“All diplomatic, economic, financial measures and others are applicable from today and will not be lifted until the re-establishment of constitutional order,” said the chairman of the 15-nation regional bloc, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara.
Non-ECOWAS members Mauritania and Algeria, which border Mali to the north and west, were at the emergency summit in Dakar on Monday and will also implement the embargo.
The bloc will also put in place a military standby force, after earlier putting some 2,000 regional troops on alert, Ouattara said, calling the situation in Mali “extremely serious.”
Mali’s junta said late Monday that it had “taken note” of the regional embargo.
Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo added in a statement that the junta remains “at the disposition of… mediation to find solutions out of the crisis” but said that its priority remained “recovering the country’s territorial integrity faced with the crisis in the north.”
The vast landlocked country depends heavily on the import of fuel and basic goods from surrounding nations and the embargo will also cut the putschists off from the regional central bank in Dakar, affecting the junta’s ability to pay public wages.
Ouattara said the junta’s claim that it would restore the constitution it had suspended immediately after its overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Toure and its promise not to stand in new polls were not enough.
The junta must “hand power over to recognised constitutional authorities,” he insisted.
As the situation deteriorated, both former colonial power France and Belgium urged their citizens to leave the country.
Paris said that was “no question” of sending troops and expressed concern over the role of Islamist groups in the rebellion.
A band of low-ranking officers ousted the government last month over its alleged failure to take action on the rekindled Tuareg insurgency.
However the power vacuum played into the hands of the insurgents – Tuareg separatists and radical Islamists – who have captured key towns in the vast arid north virtually unopposed.
As Kidal, Gao and then the ancient city of Timbuktu fell in the past three days, the bow-tie shaped nation was split in two.
On Monday, witnesses reported that Islamist fighters chased the Tuareg rebels out of Timbuktu, one day after both groups swept into the fabled city.
Though they have been fighting side by side over the past several months, the two groups have very different objectives in an offensive aided by heavy weapons brought back by Tuaregs from Libya, where they had been employed by slain dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
The main Tuareg rebel group MNLA (Azawad National Liberation Movement) seeks the independence of northern Mali, which it considers the Tuareg homeland that it calls Azawad. The Islamist Ansar Dine wants to implement Sharia law in the mostly Muslim but secular state.
The latter is under the command of Iyad Ag Ghaly, who played key roles in the two previous Tuareg rebellions in the 1990s and 2007-9. He has since taken up the Islamist cause, distancing himself from the Tuareg national cause and developing links with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
In Timbuktu on Monday, Ghaly and his fighters “took the city, chased away the people from MNLA who were there, burned the MNLA flag and put their own flag up at the military camp,” said cameraman Moussa Haidara, who filmed the events.
Mauritanian news agency Al-Akhbar said the north African Al-Qaeda branch was also present in Timbuktu — once a renowned intellectual and religious centre helping to spread Islam throughout Africa and a renowned trading hub.
One of the AQIM leaders “Yahya Abou Al-Hammam entered the town and made the former army headquarters his base,” the news agency reported.
Security sources said that fellow AQIM leader, Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was also in northern Mali after a reported shopping trip for weapons in Libya.
The swift rebel advance in the north sparked panic further south as some citizens saw soldiers fleeing their posts and followed suit.
More than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes by the fighting and aid groups have warned that the combination of civil war and drought could lead to one of the continent’s worst humanitarian emergencies.
Meanwhile a coalition of youths, artists and media professionals launched a movement in Bamako, with the slogan “that’s enough!” calling on the putschists to give up power and start a national dialogue.