BAMAKO (Reuters) - Malians queued to stock up on petrol at garages around the capital Bamako on Tuesday after neighbours launched trade and diplomatic sanctions aimed at forcing the military junta to hand over power.
For long one of the most stable democracies in West Africa, Mali has plunged into turmoil since a widely condemned March 22 coup that emboldened Tuareg rebels to seize half the country in their quest for a northern homeland.
They have been joined by Islamists bent on imposing sharia, Islamic law, across the whole of the moderate Muslim state, now the latest security headache for a region battling al Qaeda agents and home-grown militant groups like Nigeria’s Boko Haram.
Worried neighbours, including Ivory Coast and Niger, have told coup leaders to step down immediately. On Monday they launched sanctions, including the closure of borders to the land-locked country and a freezing of its funds at the central bank of the West African franc currency zone.
“I’m just filling up now in case we get shortages,” said one resident at a garage in central Bamako before he rushed off with four jerry-cans of petrol. Around 50 others queued for petrol in cars, motorbikes and on foot.
Much of Mali’s fuel is imported from Ivory Coast and if the trade embargo takes full effect it could start to strangle the economy of Africa’s third largest gold-miner in days.
The junta, led by the hitherto obscure U.S.-trained Captain Amadou Sanogo, issued a statement late on Monday acknowledging the sanctions and repeating its promise to hand over power to civilians at an unspecified date.
“We ask the population to remain calm,” the statement on state television said, adding that the priority at the moment remained fighting the rebellion in the north.
While the stated aim of the coup leaders was to give the army more clout to tackle the two-month-old revolt, their power grab triggered a rebel sweep through a northern zone the size of France - in many cases hard on the heels of fleeing army forces.
The Tuareg-led rebel group MNLA says it controls the three main towns in the desert zone - Kidal, Gao and the ancient trading post of Timbuktu - and has stressed it has no intention of pushing further north.
But there is growing disquiet about the role of the local Ansar Dine Islamist group, which, rather seeking to carve out a northern homeland, wants to impose Islamic law across all of Mali. In Gao its members ransacked hotels serving alcohol and told locals that Western-style clothing was banned.
Residents in Timbuktu said on Monday that better-armed Ansar Dine fighters had dislodged MNLA rebels who initially seized the town on Sunday.
Mali’s neighbours see the exit of the coup leaders as a prerequisite to any regional attempt to halt the rebellion.
Ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure, who had been due to step down in scheduled elections later this month, is still in hiding. Neighbours are proposing that a neutral figure be named as interim president before a new attempt to stage polls.
It is unclear what appetite there is in the region for military intervention to secure the south from any further advances and, ultimately, to win back ground from the rebels.
Military chiefs of the 15-nation ECOWAS regional bloc are due to meet on Thursday to agree on paper a force of up to 3,000 troops, but the arduous process of extracting troop contingents from individual countries has yet to begin in earnest.
Over 200,000 Malians have fled their homes because of the fighting, and the pillaging of food, fuel and medical supplies in Gao and other northern towns has worsened their plight.
In Paris, world culture agency UNESCO appealed to warring factions to spare local heritage sites such as Timbuktu’s earthen mosques, cemeteries and other legacies of its “golden era” in the 16th century.