By BABA AHMED
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali’s coup leader Col. Assimi Goita urged West African leaders to reconsider tough new economic sanctions that went into effect Monday after he announced a plan to delay new elections by four years.
But as most countries in the regional bloc halted commercial flights to Mali, the embattled nation gained an important economic lifeline from neighboring Guinea, where a similar military junta seized power last year. Authorities there announced they would keep their borders open, providing landlocked Mali with continued access to a sea port.
Goita, who carried out two coups in the span of nine months, sought to reassure Malians late Monday about the country’s financial future.
“There is concern about the consequences of these measures, but I reassure you all that we are taking actions to face this challenge,” he said in an address on state television.
On Sunday, the West African regional bloc also announced it was activating 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.
Goita said Mali’s government remains open to dialogue with the regional bloc and urged neighboring leaders “to conduct a thorough analysis of our country’s situation, placing the best interests of the Malian people above all other considerations.”
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.
Associated Press journalists Boubacary Bocoum in Bamako, Mali and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.
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