Mali’s junta deplores new sanctions imposed by regional bloc

Col. Assimi Goita, center, who has declared himself the leader of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, is accompanied by group spokesman Ismael Wague, left, and group member Malick Diaw, center-left, as they meet with a high-level delegation from the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS, at the Ministry of Defense in Bamako, Mali, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020. Top West African officials are arriving in Mali's capital following a coup in the nation this week to meet with the junta leaders and the deposed president in efforts to negotiate a return to civilian rule. (AP Photo)
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BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali’s ruling junta on Monday condemned the new economic sanctions imposed by West African regional leaders after the coup leader announced a plan to delay new elections by four years.

Meanwhile, flights from the 14 other nations in the regional bloc known as ECOWAS came to a halt Monday following the decision by those countries to further isolate Mali and step up pressure on Col. Assimi Goita.

Mali’s financial assets held by the regional central bank and commercial banks also were frozen.

West African leaders also said late Sunday that they’d activated the ECOWAS standby military force, hinting at the threat of military intervention if the junta in Mali continues to defy international calls for democratic elections.

Col. Abdoulaye Maiga, spokesman for the government headed by coup leader Goita, appearing on a late-night news flash on state TV.

“The government of Mali energetically condemns these illegal and illegitimate sanctions,” Maiga said.

The new sanctions also restrict commerce with Mali but won’t apply to essentials like pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and equipment to fight COVID-19. Petroleum products and electricity are also excluded, the regional bloc said.

But all of Mali’s financial assets held in the regional bloc’s central bank and commercial banks will be blocked. Previous sanctions had only targeted junta leadership with travel bans and asset freezes.

Fatoumata Diawara, a 43-year-old business manager in Bamako, said the government should change its election timeline given the potential economic fallout.”

“We need money just to work,” she said. “We cannot work without financial backers.”

Mali’s junta initially had agreed to hold a new election in late February, 18 months after it first seized power. The military leadership now says the next presidential election will not take place until 2026, giving Goita four more years in power.

In a statement, regional leaders on Sunday called this timeframe “totally unacceptable” and said it “simply means that an illegitimate military transition government will take the Malian people hostage during the next five years.”

After overthrowing Mali’s democratically elected president, Goita had promised to swiftly return the country to democratic rule. Doubts deepened about his intentions, though, after he effectively launched a second coup nine months later, forcing out the chosen transitional civilian leaders and becoming president himself.

Mali’s junta maintains that elections can’t be held because of deepening insecurity across the country, where Islamic extremists have been fighting a decade-long insurgency. They also say it’s essential to draft a new constitution and put it before voters in a referendum, a lengthy endeavor that would pave the way for new local and legislative elections before any presidential vote.

The French military, which helped push the militants from power in northern Mali in 2013, is now in the process of reducing its troop presence in Mali. Many fear their departure will only deepen the crisis despite the presence of U.N. peacekeepers and regional forces bolstering Malian troops’ efforts.

Critics of the junta fear that the political turmoil will further undermine the Malian military’s response to Islamic extremist attacks at a time when they will increasingly be bearing the responsibility for fighting militants.