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Mali coup leaders vow elections amid widespread condemnation

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The junta that forced Mali’s president to resign urged people to go back to business as usual on Wednesday, seeking to normalize their coup amid global condemnation from leaders who feared the power grab would only further mire West Africa’s fight against growing Islamic extremism.

The African Union suspended Mali from the bloc and demanded the release of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and other government officials. Former colonizer France, which has worked to stabilize the country since leading a 2013 military operation to oust extremists from power in the north, called for a return to civilian rule. The United Nations, which is spending $1.2 billion a year on its peacekeeping mission in Mali, also strongly condemned the coup.

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Tuesday’s developments “represent an enormous setback” after seven years of investment by international partners to address Mali’s insecurity and political challenges, said Judd Devermont, the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Bamako is going to be paralyzed by the political jockeying over the future, and our ability to work with the government and security services are going to be undercut and restrained,” he said. “This intermediary period is really dangerous for the region’s security.”

The coup was an enormous blow for West Africa, where military power grabs were increasingly becoming a thing of the past before Keita’s ouster this week. Unpopular leaders in recent years were more likely to be forced into exile than overthrown outright by soldiers in the middle of the night.

This week’s developments sparked alarm it could set a dangerous precedent.

Keita’s hand was forced Tuesday after months of anti-government protests amid deteriorating security. Mutinous soldiers surrounded his residence, fired shots into the air and eventually detained him and his prime minister. Keita later announced his resignation on state broadcaster ORTM. He said the National Assembly would also being dissolved.

Even as the international community condemned the coup, Keita’s departure was met with jubilation by anti-government demonstrators in the capital, Bamako.

The mutinous soldiers — who identified themselves as the National Committee for the Salvation of the People — tried to calm concerns in an address on state broadcaster ORTM early Wednesday.

“With you, standing as one, we can restore this country to its former greatness,” said spokesman Col. Maj. Ismael Wague

He announced that Mali’s borders were closed and imposed a nighttime curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. — but later Wednesday the junta urged people to return to life as usual.

Wague said the committee will implement a transition to civilian political rule with elections in a “reasonable amount of time,” but gave no timeline.

Mali was long hailed as a pillar of stability and democracy in West Africa, but it has been beset by insecurity since 2012, when a coup created a power vacuum that Islamic extremists took advantage of. Their rapid march through the country’s north alarmed the international community, as they set up a parallel state that many feared would threaten the security of the entire region.

French-led forces pushed back the jihadists, and a U.N. peacekeeping force of more than 15,000 troops is now on the ground. But even with substantial help from France’s military, Malian forces have failed to end the attacks, which increased dramatically last year, unsettling the population.

Instability in Mali threatens the entire Sahel — an arid, thinly populated region south of the Sahara — where the U.S. also has about 1,400 troops, including special forces. In the years since the Islamic insurgency began in Mali, the rise of extremism also has increasingly destabilized neighbors Burkina Faso and Niger.

Criticism of the takeover was swift from the African Union and the West African regional bloc ECOWAS, as well as France, the European Union and the United Nations.

The U.N. Security Council scheduled a closed meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss the situation, and ECOWAS said it was sending a high-level delegation to “ensure the immediate return to constitutional order.”

The bloc had previously sent mediators to negotiate a unity government, but those talks fell apart. It said it would stop all economic, trade and financial flows and transactions between ECOWAS states and Mali.

French President Emmanuel Macron denounced the military takeover and pledged full support to the regional mediation effort.

An official with the French presidency wouldn’t give any details about what the French military might do, saying only: “The priority is to not lose the fight against terrorism.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be publicly named according to official policy.

Keita, who tried to meet protesters’ demands through a series of concessions, was first elected with 77% of the vote and has enjoyed broad support from France and other Western allies.

But his political downfall closely mirrored that of his predecessor, Amadou Toumani Toure, who was forced out by an army captain angered over the government’s lack of support for soldiers battling ethnic Tuareg separatist rebels in the north.

The deteriorating security situation for soldiers as well as late and low payments for troops were among the issues playing a key role in this week’s coup, said Alexandre Raymakers, a senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk consultancy.

But the actions by the military are about more than just insecurity, said Devermont, of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He noted that Keita appointed his son to a prominent political position and relied on low voter turnout during the coronavirus pandemic and a friendly constitutional court to assert control of the legislature.

“His political maneuvering and seeming disregard to the country’s plight triggered massive protests,” he said.

A transitional government, however, will take some time to put together and, if done hastily, won’t necessarily yield a dramatically different kind of leader, he warned.

The International Committee of the Red Cross in Mali warned that more chaos would only hurt the Malian people.

“People in northern and central Mali have lived for years n a vicious cycle of conflict and climate shocks that have driven them from their homes and destroyed their livelihoods. Their needs must not be forgotten,” said the head of the delegation for ICRC in Mali, Klaus Spreyermann.

Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, and Angela Charlton from Paris contributed.