BAMAKO/LONDON (Reuters) – A key meeting on Saturday between Mali’s coup leaders and mediators from West Africa’s regional bloc seeking a return to civilian rule ended after just 20 minutes.
Tuesday’s overthrow of Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has been condemned abroad, but celebrated by many in a country battling an Islamist insurgency and months of political unrest.
A delegation from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) earlier arrived in the capital, Bamako, for talks aimed at reversing the overthrow of Keita.
The bloc has taken a hard line on the coup, shutting borders and halting financial flows – a move diplomats said was as much about warning opponents at home as stabilising Mali.
Ahead of a series of meetings with the mutineers and other groups, the head of the delegation, Nigeria’s former President Goodluck Jonathan, sounded optimistic.
“I believe at the end of the day we will come up with something that is best for the people and is good for ECOWAS and the international community,” he told journalists.
The most-anticipated meeting was held in the defence ministry, where ECOWAS mediators in face masks sat at a long table opposite junta leader Assimi Goita, who wore a desert camouflage uniform and was flanked by other military officers in berets and fatigues, photos on Twitter showed.
The talks were set to last 90 minutes, according to a provisional ECOWAS schedule, seen by Reuters. But the meeting ended after just 20 minutes, a Reuters reporter said.
It was not clear if the schedule had been changed or talks were cut short. ECOWAS and the coup leaders, who call themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), have yet to comment on the discussions.
The CNSP has controlled the country since Tuesday, when the mutineers detained Keita at gunpoint and forced him to resign. They have promised to oversee a transition to elections within a “reasonable” amount of time.
The ouster of Keita, known as IBK, has been welcomed by many in Mali, which was rocked by months of protests calling for his resignation over alleged corruption and worsening security in areas where affiliates of al Qaeda and Islamic State are active.
The presidents of Ivory Coast and Guinea are among those pushing for the tough ECOWAS response, one diplomat said, as both have faced violent public protests to their third-term bids and want the bloc to show it will not allow power grabs in its own backyard.
“They cannot tolerate this taking place. They are taking it very personally. It is on their doorstep and they think they are next,” a second regional diplomat said.
After three days of post-coup calm in the capital Bamako, police used tear gas earlier on Saturday when a scuffle broke out between a group of 50 pro-Keita protesters and local residents who threw stones, an eyewitness told Reuters.
“Reinstating IBK is out of the question. The only thing they (the delegation) can achieve is the transition. Under the rules of ECOWAS, ECOWAS should midwife the transition,” one of the diplomats said, referring to the outcome of the delegation’s visit.
On Friday, thousands of the coup’s supporters gathered in a central square in Bamako to celebrate the takeover. There is no outward sign ECOWAS’s suspension of financial relations is yet being felt.
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