Mali faces economic blockade as Senegal swears in newly-elected president


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The Independent Online

Mali faces an economic blockade after a day of contrasting democratic fortunes in West Africa, where Senegal swore in its newly-elected president and pressure mounted on coup leaders in Bamako to step down.

Leaders who assembled in Senegal's capital Dakar for the inauguration of Macky Sall today held emergency talks after a deadline for Mali's military junta to step down or face sanctions expired. The regional ECOWAS bloc has been talking tough over the seizure of power by young army captain Amadou Sanogo but will be reluctant to further isolate a neighbour that is already facing a powerful armed insurgency.

The former French colony has been cut in two after rebels from the Tuareg minority seized the northern half of the country. Rebels, many of whom have moved south and being part of the defeated forces of late Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, have declared a separatist state they are calling Azawad. The Tuareg fighters have overpowered the Malian army seizing northern garrisons and taking the historic city of Timbuktu on Sunday.

The early successes of the rebel Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) prompted the demoralised Malian army to mutiny, throwing out democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure 11 days ago.

An economic blockade by its neighbours could quickly strangle the military authorities in the capital, Bamako. Mali shares a currency with seven other countries and badly needs support in its fight against the heavily armed Tuaregs.

The coup leaders are well aware of this and Captain Sanogo promised to restore the constitution and move to elections in a bid over the weekend to ward off a blockade.

The international response to the coup has been hamstrung by concerns that tough action against the new authorities in Bamako could further embolden the MNLA who have been joined by fighters from several Islamic factions, at least one of which is accused of having links to al Qa'ida in the Maghreb (AQIM).

France, which today advised its citizens to leave the former colony says it will not intervene in Mali despite concerns over possible links between northern insurgents and AQIM. Under President Sarkozy, who is embroiled in his own re-election battle, France has been highly active in North and West Africa, intervening in an electoral crisis in Ivory Coast and the Libyan uprising.

An MNLA spokesman said its fighters had not been joined by those of Ansar Dine – an Islamic militia who have been fighting central authorities in Mali and have family links to prominent members of the al Qa'ida affiliate. The rebels have insisted that they will not march on the Malian capital and say they are ready to discuss a ceasefire with the army.

However, concern over links to terror groups remain with some witnesses reporting seeing Arab militiamen joining forces with the MNLA in recently captured towns. There are also reports of widespread looting in the recently captured towns of Kidal and Gao where many residents are trying to flee after being threatened by gunmen.

“There is an atmosphere of terror and confusion” in Gao according to Gatan Mootoo from Amnesty International. A witness in the town told the rights monitor: “Armed people are entering the houses and looting. They are firing in the air and we are all terrified. We are left with no defence.”

Other residents said the hospital in Gao had been ransacked, while reports indicated that one man had been killed by a stray bullet in Timbuktu.

The crisis has so far displaced more than 200,000 people into neighbouring countries who are in the grip of a severe Sahel zone hunger season.

The Tuareg, a historically nomad people who mastered the desert caravans across the Sahara, have lost out in recent decades as trade has shifted air and sea routes. They have also faced discrimination for their lighter skin in Mali where they make up a minority of less than 20 percent of the population. The claims for a homeland of Azawad threaten existing borders in other countries with Tuareg minorities: Algeria, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso as well as Mali.