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Hundreds in Mali’s capital welcome president’s downfall

Spokesman for the National Committee for the Salvation of the People Ismael Wague speaks to The Associated Press in Kati, Mali late Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. West African leaders escalated pressure on Mali’s ruling junta late Thursday, calling on them to allow President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s return to power as the mutinous soldiers who overthrew him insisted his midnight resignation had been his own decision. (AP Photo/Baba Ahmed)

By BABA AHMED, BAMAKO, Mali (AP):- Hundreds marched in the streets of Mali’s capital Friday to celebrate the overthrow of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, as the West African country’s longtime political opposition backed the military’s junta plan to eventually hand over power to a civilian transitional government.

But as opponents of the former regime moved ahead with plans for the future, the international community continued to express alarm about the coup that deposed Mali’s democratically elected leader earlier this week.

Already there are concerns that the political upheaval will divert attention away from the more than seven-year international fight against Islamic extremists who have previously used power vacuums to expand their terrain.

Keita — first elected in a 2013 landslide the year after a similar military coup — saw his popularity plummet after his 2018 re-election as the Malian army faced punishing losses from jihadist attacks. Then after dozens of legislative elections were disputed this spring, demonstrators began taking to the streets calling for his resignation. He offered concessions and regional mediators intervened, but his opponents who formed the coalition known as M5-RFP made clear they would accept nothing short of his departure.

On Friday, they welcomed the week’s developments but insisted they remained “deeply attached to democracy.”

The junta — which calls itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People — has promised it will return the country to civilian rule but has given no time frame for doing so. Mali was not due to have another election until 2023. Military juntas across West Africa have not always been in a rush to hand over power even when promising to do so — after the March 2012 coup the first democratic election was not held until the following August.

The regional bloc known as ECOWAS signaled it would send another delegation to Bamako soon. But even as it made that it announcement it also called for the mobilization of a regional standby military force, and indication it already was preparing contingency plans in case of negotiations again failed.

ECOWAS leaders already have suspended Mali’s membership, closed its borders with the country, and said that financial sanctions would be imposed against the junta leaders.

Junta spokesman Ismael Wague insisted Keita had resigned of his own free will despite soldiers having detained him after surrounding his private residence and firing shots into the air. The 75-year-old ousted leader continued to remain in military custody Friday along with the prime minister.

“The president of the republic resigned on his own after making an analysis of the country’s situation,” Wague said. “For us, this is a civil transition, not a military one, and the president of the transition must reach a consensus among the forces of the nation.”

U.N. human rights officials have met with Keita and other officials being held by the junta, according to Guillaume Ngefa, the Mali representative for the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights. He gave no further details on the meeting, nor on the condition of the detainees, though he confirmed that Mali’s finance minister has been released.

A distressed Keita, wearing a mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic, resigned on national broadcaster ORTM on Tuesday just before midnight and three years before his final term was to end.

“If today, it pleases certain elements of the military to decide this should end with their intervention … I must submit to it,” he said. “I wish no blood to be shed to keep me in power.”

The United Nations and France have been urging a return to constitutional order in Mali, amid fears that Islamic extremists could once again gain ground amid the political upheaval, derailing more than seven years of effort to stabilize the country. The United Nations spends $1.2 billion annually on the peacekeeping mission in Mali.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly said counter-terrorism operations have continued despite this week’s coup and France is working with European and regional allies “to find a solution to this grave crisis.”

“It is important that we continue our combat against terrorism in the region,” for the security of the Sahel and of Europe, she said in Paris on Friday. “We will continue our fight against terrorism, which is far from being completed.”

French and U.N. soldiers patrolled the streets in Mali’s northern city of Gao on Friday, where there was the worry of more chaos. The U.N. has a mission of 15,600 peacekeepers and the majority of France’s 5,000 troops in the Sahel are in Mali.

Mali’s 2012 coup created a power vacuum that allowed jihadists to seize control of key northern cities until a French-led military operation pushed the rebels out of the urban centers the following year.

Since being pushed out of the northern cities, the jihadists have regrouped in rural areas and launched relentless attacks on the Malian military, as well as the U.N., French and regional forces in the country. The extremists have moved south, inflaming tensions between ethnic groups in central Mali.

Observers fear Mali’s current political upheaval will give extremists another chance to expand their reach. Wague, the junta spokesman, said the new military rulers were doing everything possible to be sure that was not the case.

Col. Assimi Goita, Mali’s new strongman, had been head of a special military unit based in central Mali. He also had taken part in the annual Flintlock training organized by the U.S. military to help Mali and other Sahel countries better fight extremists.

While Mali’s Islamic insurgency started before Keita took office, many felt his government did not do enough to end the violence.

Nicolas Mora, who is in charge of aid to Mali at the French Development Agency (AFD), the government’s foreign aid arm, said it’s too early to know the exact scale of the impact on aid to Mali.

France currently has 600 million euros worth of aid projects underway in Mali that the government’s foreign aid agency hopes to continue, with 150 million of that going to the poorest “most sensitive” areas of northern Mali, he said.

“We remain prudent about projects that were directly contracted with the Malian state, even if we don’t see a major reason to suspend them,” he said.

For the projects contracted directly with aid groups, he said, “we have decided to likely pursue them” despite the coup. However, he remained cautious, saying the agency’s actions are “subject to political decisions because we are under the authority of the French state.”

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