BAMAKO: Mali's efforts to escape a post-coup crisis faced further upset Wednesday after key political parties called for the prime minister to resign, just days before a deadline to form a new unity government.
Interim Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra has until July 31 to formulate a unity government, demanded by regional mediators to deal with the deepening hold of hardline Islamists on the north, which they seized four months ago.
But as Diarra -- an astrophysicist and US citizen -- cobbles together a new government, a grouping of key political parties and civil society organisations on Tuesday demanded he step down.
"Three months after its formation, the transition government led by Cheick Modibo Diarra has only become bogged down in incompetence and amateurishness and Mali is only sinking deeper," the United Front for the Defence of the Republic and Democracy (FDR) said in a statement.
The FDR criticised his roadmap to escape the post-coup crisis as being without vision and "clearly concocted under the pressure of events and in which the burning priorities of the nation are scarcely in evidence".
The grouping notably accused Diarra of having "no strategy to free, through war or negotiation" the north of the country.
One of the parties in the FDR is the Malian Democratic Alliance, whose leader is president of the transition government Dioncounda Traore.
Traore has been in Paris for two months after being violently mobbed in his office by opponents to his appointment.
"Indeed, the ship is pitching," said an African diplomat based in Bamako on condition of anonymity.
"We are a number of countries in the sub-region who have observed the current transition government is struggling to resolve urgent problems."
Armed Islamist groups that security experts say are acting under the aegis of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, took advantage of a power vacuum after the March 22 coup to seize an area larger than France.
Since the formation of the 12-month transition government, the Islamists have only deepened their hold, implementing strict sharia law and destroying ancient World Heritage Sites in the city of Timbuktu.
The occupation has also led to the displacement of some 400,000 Malians, more than half of whom are living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, according to the UN refugee agency.
While Diarra's interim government's main task was to solve the northern crisis, it has made no headway.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ordered them to form a unity government uniting disparate political forces by July 31 or face suspension from the bloc.
ECOWAS wants to send a 3,000-strong military force to Mali, but is waiting for United Nations approval and a formal request from Bamako.
"It is up to the Malians to decide who must be their prime minister and the make up of their government," a source within the mediation team in Burkina Faso told AFP.
He added that mediators want Traore back in Bamako by July 31.
Military leaders from several west African states gathered in Ivory Coast capital Abidjan on Wednesday for a logistical talks on a regional force.
Tuareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), who were forced out of northern Mali by armed Islamists, said Wednesday they would not participate in any future unity government.
"We have no intention of going to Bamako," MNLA spokesman in France Moussa Ag Assarid said.
He also said the MNLA was willing to fight "terrorist groups" alongside any forces ECOWAS deploys to northern Mali.
Ivory Coast leader and current ECOWAS chief Alassane Ouattara is due to meet French President Francois Hollande in Paris on Thursday as west Africa's biggest crisis looms large.
Regional heads of state met in Abidjan on Wednesday to examine a report by military experts who carried out an "audit" of the foundering Malian army to determine its needs.
"The situation in Mali is getting worse every day," Ivorian army chief Soumaila Bakayoko said at a ceremony opening the Abidjan meeting.
Diarra, who has worked for NASA and was also the Microsoft chairman for Africa, is the son-in-law of Moussa Traore who became president of Mali after ousting a previous regime and ruled for 23 years until 1991.
Many in Mali see him as too close to the former putschists led by Amadou Sanogo, who has remained influential despite handing power over to a civilian government and has been accused of meddling in political affairs.
Human Rights Watch on Wednesday said at least 20 soldiers loyal to Mali's ousted government had disappeared at the hands of Sanogo's troops, and accuses them of torture and abuses against dozens of others, including journalists.