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W. Africa bloc presses Mali junta to hand power to civilians

NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — West African leaders warned Mali's military junta on Monday they must designate civilian heads of state by next week to chart a path back to democracy or the country will face further sanctions from the regional bloc.

The latest talks on the Mali crisis came after the 15-nation regional bloc known as ECOWAS met in neighboring Niger and tapped Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo as its new chairman. Mutinous soldiers forced Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to resign on Aug. 18 but no agreement has been reached on a transitional civilian leader or a time frame for a new election despite repeated talks with the junta.

ECOWAS wants the process completed within a year and has set a Sept. 15 deadline for implementing a civilian president and prime minister, according to a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

However, the military junta already says it wants to rewrite the country's constitution first, proposing instead a three-year transition with an election in 2023. ECOWAS, backed by former colonial power France, has said that is out of the question.

Mali's political opposition also has called on the coup leaders to speed up their envisioned time frame. Imam and opposition leader Mahmoud Dicko has publicly urged the junta leaders to “be part of the solution and not another problem.”

The 15-nation regional bloc has already stopped financial transfers into the country and has closed it borders with Mali. West African leaders fear that protracted political chaos could further destabilize Mali, which has been battling an Islamic insurgency with international help since 2013. If jihadists are able to flourish amid a power vacuum, it could have disastrous consequences for neighbors like Niger and Burkina Faso, whose armies also face ongoing attacks from extremist groups.

A 2012 military coup in Mali was exploited by jihadists, who managed to seize major towns in the north before France led a military intervention the following year to oust them. The jihadists though have regrouped in the surrounding rural areas, and have continued to launch scores of attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and the Malian military. While the violence started before Keita took office in 2013, many Malians felt his government had not done enough to stamp out the extremists.

Ahmed reported from Bamako, Mali.