African leaders send ‘strong signal’ to Mali coup

BAMAKO, Mali — The heads of state of the countries neighboring Mali said Tuesday they want to send a "strong signal" to the mutinous soldiers who seized power last week, overturning over 20 years of democracy in this African nation.

Already, the United States, the European Union and France have cut off aid. Additional sanctions from the region would be a further blow to the junta. The regional Economic Community for West African states controls the common currency shared by nations in the region, and could cut off the supply of cash. Also if nearby Ivory Coast shut its border, Mali would quickly run out of gasoline.

In Abidjan, the capital of neighboring Ivory Coast, the chair of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, called on his peers to send a message to the mutinous soldiers who charged through the capital, looting the presidential palace and sending into hiding the nation's democratically elected president.

"Our position should consist of a number of actions that we carry out as quickly as possible. This position should be a strong signal, given from all of Africa and from the entire world," Ouattara said.

The pending decision by the body comes after France suspended all government cooperation with Mali, except for humanitarian aid. On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in Washington announced that the U.S. was cutting off roughly half the US$140 million in aid it gives Mali each year. She said military and other assistance would only resume when the African country's democratic government is restored.

The head of the regional body's commission, Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, said that the coup is a threat to the entire region.

"The security and political situation (in Mali) … dangerously threatens not only the peace and security in Mali but also the peace, stability and development of all the member countries of ECOWAS," he said.

Outside of the conference center in Abidjan where the meeting was in process, hundreds of demonstrators from Mali called on the delegation to take action.

"We do not recognize the soldiers as our leaders. We do not recognize them today, tomorrow or next year," shouted Amadou Maga, a Malian who lives in Abidjan.

Mohamed Decko, the head of a Malian association, wearing a shirt with the image of ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure, said: "We want the soldiers back in their barracks. … This coup is putting Mali back 20 years."

It was 21 years ago in 1991 that Toure ousted the country's military leader in a coup d'etat that came after months of protests. The former general, who once headed the country's parachute commandos, was dubbed "The Soldier of Democracy," after he handed power to civilians a year later, then retreated from public life.

He remerged to win the 2002 and 2007 elections, and was due to retire at the end of his term next month.

Toure, whose whereabouts since the coup remain unknown, began losing support when an al-Qaida-linked terror cell implanted itself in northern Mali starting in 2003. He is accused of turning a blind eye, while diplomatic cables suggest the government entered into a pact of nonaggression with the terrorists for fear they would strike the capital in revenge.

It was in January that Toure's popularity hit a new low, after a Tuareg uprising began in the country's north. Again Toure did not respond forcefully, and when he finally sent troops to fight the insurgents, they were ill-equipped. Some did not even have enough food.

The group of soldiers that led the attack last week said that it was Toure's failure and incompetence in dealing with the two-month-old insurgency that pushed them to seize power.

The spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday confirmed that France's ambassador in Bamako had spoken by telephone with the Malian leader. The ministry spokesman, Bernard Valero, said that during the telephone conversation, Amadou Toumani Toure "gave reassurances about himself and those close to him."

Valero refused to say where Toure was when he spoke with Ambassador Christian Rouyer.

Also on Tuesday, the acting head of the European Union delegation in Mali met Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, the coup leader, to press for a return to constitutional rule.

"I saw Captain Sanogo this morning and told him that we expect him to find a solution to the current situation that keeps as closely as possible to the constitution," said Bertrand Soret.

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