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West Africa tells Mali's junta to install interim government

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — West Africa's leaders have demanded that Mali's ruling military junta put in place an interim government, headed by a civilian or retired military officer, that would last no longer than one year before democratic elections are held to restore the country to civilian rule.

That demand was conveyed by special envoy, former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan during negotiations in Mali this week with the junta that deposed Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in a coup on Aug. 18.

“The Interim Government would then organize elections to restore full constitutional order,” Jonathan told Nigeria’s current President Muhammadu Buhari during a briefing on the negotiations that were suspended Monday, according to a statement from his office.

The briefing by Jonathan comes before an extraordinary virtual summit to be held Friday by the 15-nation regional bloc ECOWAS to discuss the situation in Mali. Mali's junta, calling itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, has proposed staying in power for three years until Mali’s next election until 2023. The junta’s proposed time frame is more than double the time it took to hold a vote after a similar coup in 2012, and would allow the soldiers who overthrew a democratically elected president to remain in power all that time.

African countries and the wider international community have expressed fears that Mali’s upheaval could allow Islamic extremists in the country to extend their reach. Mali has been fighting the extremists with heavy international support for more than seven years, and jihadists have used previous power vacuums in the country to expand their territory.

“About two-thirds of Mali is occupied by terrorists, and it makes common sense to secure the country, rather than pursuing individual interests,” Nigeria's president said in the statement issued by his office.

West Africa will reach a common position on Mali on Friday, he said. The ECOWAS delegation to Mali suspended their mediation talks with Mali’s military junta Monday after failing to reach an agreement on who will lead the volatile country and how long the transition back to democracy would take.

Right after the coup, ECOWAS leaders said they were considering mobilizing a standby military force to restore civilian rule, but that prospect has become unlikely after thousands of Malians took to the streets of the capital last week to support the junta. The regional group also shut borders, halted financial flows with Mali and threatened further sanctions.

The leaders of the junta are also asking ECOWAS to lift sanctions already in place, according to Jonathan, who said “we told them that the authority to do such was only in the hands of ECOWAS heads of state.”

The safety of Mali’s deposed president was also discussed with the junta, according to Jonathan’s briefing with the Nigerian president. “We asked them to allow ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to return to his personal residence, where he would be given tight security, but they said he (might) travel abroad and not return to answer questions they may have for him,’’ Jonathan said.

Keita was detained with other government officials during the coup and later resigned. The ECOWAS negotiating team visited Keita during their visit to Mali’s capital. Keita confirmed that he resigned voluntarily, “adding that he was no longer interested in returning to his former position,” according to the ECOWAS delegation's statement.

“We also told them that what would be acceptable to ECOWAS was an Interim Government, headed by a civilian or retired military officer, to last for six or nine months, and maximum of 12 calendar months,” Jonathan said.

The ECOWAS demand comes amid mounting international pressure on the junta. The International Organization of Francophonie — representing the world's French-speaking countries — on Wednesday suspended Mali. The organization will send a high-level delegation to Mali’s capital, Bamako, in the coming days to evaluate the situation, it said in a statement.

The European Union will also be suspending its security training missions in Mali.

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