Col. Assimi Goita meets with a high-level delegation from the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS, at the Ministry of Defense in Bamako, Mali, Aug. 22, 2020. AP
In a sharp escalation after months of simmering diplomatic tensions, leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Sunday agreed to shutter borders with the Sahel state and impose a trade embargo -- a decision backed Monday by France at the UN Security Council.
They also agreed to cut financial aid, freeze Mali's assets at the Central Bank of West African States, and to recall their ambassadors from the country.
The sanctions followed a proposal from Mali's army-dominated government last month to stay in power for up to five years before staging elections -- despite international demands that it respect a promise to hold elections in February.
ECOWAS also rejected a revised proposal the regime submitted to the bloc on the even of the weekend summit.
Colonel Assimi Goita, Mali's strongman who took power in a military coup in August 2020, has not yet responded publicly to the political crisis.
But an official in his office, who requested anonymity, said that Goita had held a long meeting with his prime minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga on Monday.
'Illegal And Illegitimate'
Earlier, Mali's junta denounced the ECOWAS sanctions as "illegal and illegitimate" accusing the bloc of being "instrumentalised by extra-regional powers" in an apparent reference to France.
Relations between Mali and France, its former colonial master which has thousands of troops in the country, have deteriorated since the 2020 coup that ousted elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
At a UN Security Council meeting on West Africa Monday, the French ambassador to the United Nations, Nicolas de Riviere, voiced his country's "full support for ECOWAS's efforts".
US ambassador Richard Mills urged Bamako "to return to democracy in a timely fashion", but stopped short of taking a stand on the ECOWAS sanctions, which it is reviewing.
After an earlier wave of sanctions from ECOWAs following the 2020 coup, Goita had promised to restore civilian rule in February 2022 presidential and legislative elections.
But he staged a second coup in May 2021, forcing out an interim civilian government, disrupting the reform timetable, and provoking widespread international condemnation.
As ECOWAS continued to insist on elections in February, the military regime argued that rampant insecurity posed a problem and that peaceful elections took priority over speed.
Mali has struggled to quell a brutal jihadist insurgency that started in 2012 before spreading to Burkina Faso and Niger. Swathes of its vast territory lie outside government control.
Russia's deputy ambassador Dmitry Polyanskyi called for supporting the junta's efforts to restore order in their country.
Moscow "understood the difficulties" in organising new elections when a lack of security might undermine the outcome, he added.
Western politicians have condemned what they say is Moscow's growing influence in Mali, some alleging that the military regime has hired mercenaries from Russia's controversial Wagner group.
'All Necessary Measures'
Mali's junta has also announced the recall of its ambassadors in ECOWAS states and the closure of its borders in response to the sanctions, vowing to take "all necessary measures to retaliate".
The effects of sanctions are already beginning to be felt.
Air France, for example, announced that it would no longer be serving Mali's capital Bamako over due to "regional geopolitical tensions".
The trade embargo may take longer to take effect, but Malians have voiced concern on social media about the risk of future shortages.
A landlocked nation of 19 million people, Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Mali's junta has said that the new ECOWAS sanctions will "affect populations already severely affected by the security crisis and the health crisis".
It also stated said it had made arrangements to ensure normal supplies, however.