BAMAKO: Mali’s junta leader promised to reinstate the constitution from Sunday, hours before a deadline set by West African neighbors to start handing over power, as northern rebels entered the ancient trading post of Timbuktu.
Amadou Sanogo, who led a military coup on March 22, also pledged to re-establish all state institutions before organizing a transfer of power back to civilians through democratic elections.
He made the promises after the 15-nation ECOWAS grouping threatened sanctions, including a crippling closure of borders around the landlocked state, if the junta did not begin handing power back by midnight.
The aim of the putsch by disgruntled soldiers was to step up the battle against the northern rebels. But the coup has backfired, emboldening the Tuareg-led rebellion to seize new ground in its quest for a northern homeland. Sunday they entered their latest target, Timbuktu, after government forces fled.
“We are making the solemn commitment to re-establish, from today, the Malian constitution of Feb. 25, 1992, and the institutions of the republic,” Sanogo said in a statement read out at a barracks outside the capital Bamako.
Sanogo, a hitherto obscure U.S.-trained captain, said the junta had agreed to consult with local political forces to set up a transition body “with the aim of organizing peaceful, free, open and democratic elections in which we will not take part.”
There was no immediate reaction from ECOWAS. However, the re-establishment of the constitution and state institutions were two measures named earlier by an envoy of Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, the crisis mediator, as essential preconditions for Mali to avoid sanctions.
“After that, we shall see what happens as regards the person of [Malian] President Amadou Toumani Toure,” Burkina Foreign Minister Djibril Bassolet told Reuters just before Sanogo’s statement. “We want to be careful, we have to go gradually,” he said, warning of the risk of a power vacuum.
Boosted by heavily armed Tuareg returning from Libya and tapping into frustrations over underdevelopment in the north, MNLA rebels launched a push for independence in mid-January.
The rebels have fought alongside another rebel group seeking to impose Sharia law, underscoring the complex web of gunmen in a zone which is home also to local Al-Qaeda groups and smugglers.
The northern administrative center of Kidal fell Friday, followed Saturday by the garrison town of Gao. Timbuktu’s capture would largely complete the rebels’ plan of seizing Mali’s north, a desert territory bigger than France.
“They have arrived in the town. They are planting their flag,” Al-Hadj Baba Haidara,a member of parliament for Timbuktu, told Reuters by telephone. A resident said the MNLA rebels had planted their flag at the governor’s office, the mayor’s office and the main military camp.
It was not immediately clear if the rebels were in full control as an Arab-led militia remained after government forces abandoned the town.
Timbuktu, for centuries a major trading post in the Sahara, was fabled for its gold, slaves and other goods, but it fell into decline even before the French 19th century occupation. Attempts to develop tourism have been hit by rising insecurity, including kidnappings of Westerners by local Al-Qaeda agents.
Western and regional nations, already critical of Toure’s soft approach toward the Islamists, are likely to fret over a security void which the rebel push has left in the Sahara.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara has said he expected Toure, who has said he is safe in an undisclosed location in Mali, to see out the remaining two months of his mandate before a transitional unity government is named.
“Then elections should be held between 21 and 40 days later. It is up to the political class to see whether that is possible,” Ouattara, the ECOWAS head, told Ivorian television.