The military junta ruling Mali following this week’s coup is seeking a transitional president to return the country civilian rule, the group’s spokesman said.
Ismael Wague told The Associated Press that the newly formed National Committee for the Salvation of the People will meet with political parties and civil society groups to determine the duration and composition of the transition.
His words come as West African leaders are escalating pressure on the junta and urging them to restore President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to power.
Wague, however, denied that the junta had carried out a coup d’etat, saying that Mali still has constitutional order and the 75-year-old Keita was only being held at army barracks for his own protection. He denied that the president had been ousted.
“The president of the republic resigned on his own after making an analysis of the country’s situation”, Wague said. “For us, this is a civil transition, not a military one, and the president of the transition must reach a consensus among the forces of the nation”, he said.
Mali’s opposition coalition, the M5-RFP, has not yet said if it will be part of the transition, though experts say it is likely. It is holding marches Friday in Bamako, the capital, “to pay tribute to the Malian people for their heroic struggle”, they said in a statement.
The coalition called on the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, “the African Union and the international community as a whole to better understand the situation in Mali apart from questions of sanctions and to support the Malian people in their quest for peace and reconciliation. national, genuine democracy and better living.”
The M5-RFP welcomed Keita’s resignation and the dissolution of the National Assembly, it said in a statement Friday. Though the M5-RFP was not involved in the overthrow, they led mass demonstrations starting in June calling for Keita’s ouster.
ECOWAS has called for the creation of a standby regional military force for possible intervention in Mali, saying Keita must be allowed to serve out the three years left in his term after this week’s “coup attempt.” ECOWAS leaders, after an urgent summit meeting on Thursday, warned that Mali’s junta was responsible for the safety of Keita and all other detained government officials.
The regional bloc said it would soon send a delegation to Bamako to try to help restore constitutional order. The ECOWAS leaders have already suspended Mali’s membership, closed its borders with the country, and said that financial sanctions would be imposed against the junta leaders.
The United Nations and France have also urged a return to constitutional order in Mali, amid fears that Islamic extremists could once again gain ground amid the political upheaval, derailing more than seven years of effort to stabilize the country.
French and U.N. soldiers patrolled the streets in Mali’s northern city of Gao on Friday, where there was worry of more chaos. The U.N. has a mission of 15,600 soldiers in Mali and France has about 5,000 troops in its Operation Barkhane, both to try to stabilize the country amid increasing attacks from Islamic extremists.
Mali had a similar coup in 2012 which created a power vacuum that allowed jihadists to seize control of key northern cities until a French-led military operation pushed the rebels out of the urban centers the following year.
Observers fear Mali’s current political upheaval will give extremists another chance to expand their reach. Wague, the junta spokesman, said the new military rulers were doing everything possible to be sure that was not the case.
“It is possible that some may take advantage of the situation to plan things, but we are in contact with the operational units on the ground so that they can continue their work”, he told AP. “We know how difficult it is for them because all of us come from the field and we will do everything we can to increase their operational capacity.”
After extremists allied to al-Qaida took over the major centers in northern Mali, they implemented their strict interpretation of Islamic law, including amputating hands for those accused of theft.
Since being pushed out of the northern cities, the jihadists have regrouped in rural areas and launched relentless attacks on the Malian military, as well as the U.N., French and regional forces in the country. The extremists have moved south, inflaming tensions between ethnic groups in central Mali.
Col. Assimi Goita, Mali’s new strongman, had been head of a special military unit based in central Mali. He also had taken part in the annual Flintlock training organized by the U.S. military to help Mali and other Sahel countries better fight extremists.
While Mali’s Islamic insurgency started before Keita took office, many felt his government did not do enough to end the violence.