France: Mali junta's timeline 'out of the question'

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People attend a prayer service led by Mahmoud Dicko, an imam who helped lead the opposition protests, for those who died or were injured during the protests, in Bamako, Mali Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. West African leaders on Friday urged Mali's junta to take no more than one year to hand over power to a civilian government, as regional heads of state held another virtual summit after initial negotiations with the military coup leaders failed. (AP Photo/Arouna Sissoko)

BAMAKO – France's defense minister is pressing Mali's military junta to return the country to civilian rule within months, saying Sunday that the three-year timeline proposed by the coup leaders is “out of the question.”

The comments came hours after the junta hastily met with prominent figures from the opposition coalition following a public dispute that highlighted emerging divisions. Both sides were united in their desire to see former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita gone, but the opposition has begun criticizing the junta in recent days showing how tense the debate over Mali's future has become.

On Friday, imam and opposition leader Mahmoud Dicko publicly urged the junta leaders to meet the demands of regional mediators in order to spare Mali further crippling financial sanctions. Dicko, whom some suspect has political ambitions of his own, called on the current leadership to "be part of the solution and not another problem.”

The 15-nation West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS has said Mali’s return to democracy must not take more than a year and already has stopped financial flows to the country among other measures.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly agreed, telling Europe-1 radio the transition should take place within “a matter of months.”

“If this does not happen, the risk is that all this benefits terrorists first and foremost," she said. "Terrorists feed on the weakness of states.”

A similar military coup in Mali in 2012 unleashed political upheaval that was exploited by Islamic extremists in the country's north. They managed to seize power of the major towns in the north and implemented their strict interpretation of Islamic law before former colonizer France led a military intervention the following year to oust them.

The jihadists though have regrouped in the surrounding rural areas, and have continued to launch scores of attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and the Malian military, one of the factors contributing to the president's downfall. While the violence started before he took office in 2013, many Malians felt his government had not done enough to stamp out the extremists, who further encroached into central Mali during Keita's presidency.