NAIROBI, Kenya — West African leaders imposed heavy sanctions on Mali's military junta today, despite the coup leader's promise to return the country to constitutional rule.
The punitive measures were announced after a three hour meeting in Dakar where regional leaders had gathered to celebrate the inauguration of new Sengalese President Macky Sall.
The actions by the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will seal all Mali's borders, block access to the regional currency and impose travel bans on leaders. These measures will be quickly felt in poor, landlocked Mali, which is dependent upon cross-border trade for everything from fuel to food.
In the face of regional pressure and a lightning advance by desert rebels, Mali's new military leaders made concessions on Sunday when they promised to restore civilian rule. Meanwhile, the northern city of Timbuktu became the latest to fall into rebel hands.
“We are making the solemn commitment to re-establish, from today, the Malian constitution of February 25, 1992 and the institutions of the republic,” coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo said at an army barracks close to the capital Bamako on Sunday.
Sanogo, who has received US military training, also promised to hold “peaceful, free, open and democratic elections in which we will not take part,” but gave no time frame for his pledges. These promises were not enough to appease the ECOWAS.
"All of the applicable measures are applicable starting today and until the constitutional order is restored," Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara, the current ECOWAS chairman, told reporters in Dakar, according to Associated Press.
Others at the Dakar meeting include Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, African Union chairman Boni Yayi, who is also the president of Benin, UN West Africa envoy Said Djinnit and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.
Dubbed the "accidental coup" because mid-level officers won control of the government before they knew it, Mali’s mutiny is the result of multiple catastrophic blowbacks.
Sanogo and other officers overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure on March 21 in anger at the government’s failure to properly tackle advancing Tuareg rebels, but the chaos the coup ushered in simply allowed the rebels to seize town after town in the north with Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu falling on consecutive days last week.
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Mali's coup is seen as the unintended consequence of the Libyan revolution, which saw thousands of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s loyal and battle-tested Tuareg fighters returning to the deserts of West Africa bringing with them stockpiles of arms and ammunition, and dreams of secession.
“Mali has experienced perhaps the most significant external repercussions from the downfall of the [Libyan] regime,” said Scott Stewart, an analyst at Stratfor, in a recent briefing note.
An estimated 200,000 people have fled their homes since the rebellion began in January, according to the UN.
To make matters worse Mali, like other countries in the Sahel (the name given to the thick strip of arid lands that border the Sahara Desert) is suffering drought and food shortages that are affecting an estimated 3.5 million people, according to aid agencies.
The seizure of Timbuktu on Sunday represents a major victory for the allied rebel forces. The town was the most northern remaining army stronghold. The military fled almost without a fight.
There was heavy but brief shooting in the morning but by evening the city’s mayor said the rebels were in charge. “The city is totally under their control,” Ousmane Halle told The Associated Press. Some residents reported looting of shops, banks and homes by the rebels.
Timbuktu is a Unesco World Heritage Site and has symbolic value as an historic center of Islamic learning and the hub of the ancient trans-Sahara trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves.
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In modern times, Timbuktu is strategically important, sitting on the Niger River 440 miles from Bamako and just north of the huge cinch-wasted country’s narrowest point making it the gateway to the Sahara.
On Sunday a spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad Nation (known by its French acronym MNLA) issued a statement describing the recent string of victories as a “return to dignity” for the people of Azawad, the Tuareg name for Mali’s north.
Mahmoud Ag Ghali added that his forces would defend and secure their territory making it “a country where there is freedom, justice and lasting peace including with our neighbors.”
Such dreams are far from being realized. ECOWAS leaders take an equally dim view of secessionists and putschists and the rebels themselves are not homogenous. The MNLA claims secular values, denies ethnic exclusivity, despite a heavy Tuareg bias, and limits its ambitions to control of the desert north.
It has strenuously denied having links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but fighting alongside the MNLA during the desert blitzkrieg is Ansar al-Din (meaning Defenders of the Faith), a Salafist force that wants to impose Islamic Shariah law across Mali and whose leader is alleged to have links of both blood and ideology with AQIM, according to Africa Confidential, an influential newsletter.
Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar al-Din, was once a close advisor to Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure but “fell under the spell of Islamist radicals while a diplomat in Saudi Arabia,” according to Africa Confidential. Ag Ghali now seeks power through religious insurgency but his Islamist posturing has already angered his rebel allies, raising fears of violent infighting.
More from GlobalPost: Timbuktu falls to Mali rebels