Mali’s junta brushed off calls to give up power on Tuesday as world powers sounded the alarm and Islamists tightened their grip on the north, ordering women to wear veils in storied Timbuktu.
Feeling the bite of mounting sanctions and pressure from all sides, the soldiers who seized power on March 22 proposed a national meeting on Thursday and dispatched a team to Nigeria for talks on an exit from the growing crisis.
Since the coup, ostensibly over government’s failure to stamp out a northern rebellion, the junta has lost over half the country’s territory -- an area the size of France -- in a matter of days to the rebel juggernaut.
Islamists seized control of the ancient trading hub Timbuktu over the weekend alongside Tuareg rebels and have since chased out their allies and declared to residents and religious leaders that they were imposing sharia law.
This sparked alarm abroad ahead of an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting on Mali, with Paris expressing concern over the Islamist threat in a country considered a democratic success until the coup.
The Tuareg rebels want an independent state while Ansar Dine which has seized Timbuktu wants to impose Islamic law and has linked up with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told AFP the two were “closely tied” and Ansar Dine’s “goals are not clear, but it may be to install an Islamic regime across the whole of Mali.”
Three of the four leaders of al-Qaeda’s north Africa branch, Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Yahya Abou Al-Hammam, were in Timbuktu on Tuesday, security and religious sources in the city said.
Residents reported women in the normally secular city that hosted a major music festival in January were on Tuesday wearing headscarves.
A day after being slapped with sanctions by its neighbors, Mali’s embattled military rulers came under travel bans and an asset freeze from the African Union for failing to restore constitutional order.
The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) already cut off the landlocked country which depends heavily on the import of fuel, also freezing access to its bank account based in Dakar.
In Bamako, long lines formed at petrol stations as panic set in over the impact of the sanctions.
The junta on Tuesday sent a delegation to Nigeria, where ECOWAS officials could offer the putschists amnesty in exchange for relinquishing power, a foreign ministry source in Abuja said. However, it appeared a deal was not reached.
An emergency ECOWAS summit on Monday gave the coup leaders 48 hours to quit power - a Wednesday deadline the junta did not even acknowledge in a statement delivered from the ramshackle barracks outside the capital Bamako that are its headquarters.
“We are inviting the political class and all civil society representatives to be present without exception at a national convention that will start on Thursday, April 5,” junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo told a news conference.
The convention, first announced on Sunday, is due to decide on what form the transition to civilian rule will take.
“The conclusions of this convention will be accepted by everyone,” said Sanogo, without giving any further details of the organization or timetable of the convention.
Sanogo also said the junta wanted to prosecute ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure for “high treason and financial wrongdoing.”
Islamists handing out food
As the military junta struggled with the intensifying crisis, armed Islamists in the north handed out food and supplies that they seized from humanitarian organizations to residents of Timbuktu, sources said.
Officials from the regional food security office linked to the agriculture ministry and local Red Cross confirmed on condition of anonymity that the goods being distributed were forcibly taken from their stocks.
The fighting in northern Mali began in mid-January by the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), which wants independence for its homeland in the northern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation.
The Islamist Ansar Dine under notorious commander Iyad Ag Ghaly, wants to implement sharia law in the mostly Muslim but secular state.
A powerful player in northern Mali, Ag Ghaly and his fighters have placed their black jihadist flag around Timbuktu, which was a leading trading and intellectual capital up until the 16th century.
“Last night Iyad Ag Ghaly met the town’s Imams (religious leaders). He explained he has not come for independence but to apply Islamic law,” said the civil servant Thiam.
The U.N. cultural agency UNESCO called on the Malian authorities and on the warring factions to respect the desert country’s heritage and the “outstanding architectural wonders” in Timbuktu, including ancient manuscripts and earthen buildings such as a nearly 700-year old mosque.
Paris said Tuesday the Tuareg rebels were approaching the central town of Mopti where hundreds fled in panic on Monday as they saw soldiers fleeing their posts amid the rebel advance.
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.
It is unclear what appetite there is in the region for military intervention to secure the south from any further advances and, ultimately, to win back ground from the rebels.
Military chiefs from ECOWAS are due to meet on Thursday to agree on paper a force of up to 3,000 troops, but the arduous process of extracting troop contingents from individual countries has yet to begin in earnest.