Mali junta pledges to hand power back to civilians

Junta leader Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo Credit: PA

The leader of Mali's coup has promised to quickly come up with new proposals aimed at handing power back to civilians.

West African neighbours have said the junta, formed after the coup on March 22nd, must start handing over power by midnight on April 2nd or face sanctions including a crippling closure of borders around the country.

We are making the solemn commitment to re-establish...the Malian constitution of February 25 1992 and the institutions of the republic.

Sanogo said the junta had agreed to consult with local political forces to set up a transition body "with the aim of organising peaceful, free, open and democratic elections in which we will not take part".

The brief statement was read to journalists by Captain Amadou Sanogo at his army barracks just outside the capital Bamako.

The main goal of the putsch by disgruntled soldiers was to step up the offensive against the northern rebels. But the coup has spectacularly backfired, emboldening the alliance of Tuareg nomads and Islamists to seize new ground.

Earlier Mali rebels prepared to advance on the ancient trading city of Timbuktu, their latest target in a lightning push for a northern homeland which has put the leaders of last week's coup on the back foot.

The northern administrative centre of Kidal fell on March 30th, followed the next day by the garrison town of Gao.

The capturing of Timbuktu is part of the rebels' plan of seizing Mali's north, a desert territory bigger than France.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) announces its army is surrounding the town of Timbuktu to dislodge what remains of the Malian political administration and military there.

Earlier, residents reported that army units were already abandoning their bases, leaving the defence of the town to local militias who took to the streets and fired in the air.

The (military camp) is empty. Most of the soldiers from the south (of Mali) have fled. It is only the Arabs who are defending the town.

Coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, as he addresses the press at junta headquarters in Kati, outside Bamako Credit: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

Another resident said she saw soldiers throwing away their uniforms and donning civilian clothes.

Timbuktu, for centuries a major trading post in the Sahara, was fabled for its gold, slaves and other goods, but it long fell into decline even before French 19th century occupation. Tentative attempts to develop tourism have been hit by rising insecurity, including kidnappings of Westerners by local al Qaeda agents.

The MNLA claimed control of Gao after junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo issued a statement on March 31st saying its soldiers had chosen not to fight to avoid battles near residential areas.

Junta leader Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo Credit: PA

While coup leaders won early support from many Malians weary of Toure's rule, the latest military defeats and the sheer scale of foreign disapproval have weakened their position.

The junta has until midnight on April 2nd to start handing back power to civilians or risk having their land-locked state suffocated economically by neighbours who have threatened to seal its borders

Everywhere it is burning. Mali cannot fight on all fronts at the same time ... Let us put our personal quarrels aside.

Diakite called on Sanogo, a hitherto obscure U.S.-trained army captain, to agree an exit plan before the deadline imposed by the 15-state ECOWAS group of West African countries for a return of power to civilians.

Then elections should be held between 21 and 40 days later. It is up to the political class to see if that is possible.