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Mali needs to focus on its security, Nigerian president says

Col. Assimi Goita, who has declared himself the leader of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, arrives to meet with former Nigerian president and mediator for the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS, Goodluck Jonathan, at the Ministry of Defense in the capital Bamako, Mali Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. The military junta now in charge of Mali insisted Monday that former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had resigned of his own free will and was not overthrown, as the officers now running the country try to prolong their rule until 2023. (AP Photo/Baba Ahmed)
Col. Assimi Goita, who has declared himself the leader of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, arrives to meet with former Nigerian president and mediator for the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS, Goodluck Jonathan, at the Ministry of Defense in the capital Bamako, Mali Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. The military junta now in charge of Mali insisted Monday that former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had resigned of his own free will and was not overthrown, as the officers now running the country try to prolong their rule until 2023. (AP Photo/Baba Ahmed) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

PARIS – Mali needs to focus on its security, under threat from Islamic extremists, and put individual interests aside after a coup last week deposed the president and left a power vacuum, Nigeria’s president said Wednesday after discussing negotiations with the junta with a regional envoy.

West African mediators with the regional bloc known as ECOWAS suspended talks with Mali’s military junta Monday after failing to reach an agreement on who will lead the volatile country in a transition back to democracy.

The junta calling itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People has proposed pushing back Mali’s next election until 2023, while ECOWAS and others want a return to civilian rule as soon as possible. The junta's proposed time frame is more than double the time it took to hold a vote after a similar coup in 2012, and would allow the soldiers who overthrew a democratically elected president to remain in power for years.

Right after the coup, ECOWAS leaders said they were considering mobilizing a standby military force to restore civilian rule, but that prospect has become unlikely after thousands took to the streets of the capital Friday to support the junta. The regional group also shut borders, halted financial flows with Mali and threatened further sanctions.

The mediators told the junta leaders that “what would be acceptable to ECOWAS was an Interim Government, headed by a civilian or retired military officer, to last for six or nine months, and maximum of 12 calendar months."

"The Interim Government would then organize elections to restore full constitutional order,” former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan told Nigeria’s current President Muhammadu Buhari, according to a statement from his office Wednesday.

Jonathan served as the head of the group of mediators who held talks last week in Bamako, Mali.

African countries and the wider international community have expressed fears that Mali’s upheaval could allow Islamic extremists in the country to extend their reach. Mali has been fighting against Islamic extremists with heavy international support for more than seven years, and jihadists have previously used power vacuums in the country to expand their territory.

“About two-thirds of Mali is occupied by terrorists, and it makes common sense to secure the country, rather than pursuing individual interests,” President Buhari said in the statement Wednesday.

The sub-region will take this common position later in the week, he said, when the heads of state of the 15-nation body hold a virtual extraordinary summit Friday to discuss the situation.

The safety of Mali’s deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was also discussed last week.

“We asked them to allow ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to return to his personal residence, where he would be given tight security, but they said he (might) travel abroad and not return to answer questions they may have for him,’’ Jonathan said.

Keita was detained with other government officials on Aug. 18, and in a statement later that evening resigned his presidency. The ECOWAS team was also able to visit Keita during their visit to Mali’s capital. Keita confirmed that he resigned voluntarily, “adding that he was no longer interested in returning to his former position,” according to Wednesday’s statement.

The leaders of the junta are also asking ECOWAS to lift sanctions put in place, according to Jonathan, who said “we told them that the authority to do such was only in the hands of ECOWAS heads of state.”

The request comes amid mounting international pressure on the junta.

The permanent council of the International Organization of Francophonie — which brings together French-speaking countries — on Wednesday decided to suspend Mali after holding an emergency meeting to discuss the situation in Mali. The organization will send a high-level delegation to Mali’s capital, Bamako, in the coming days to evaluate the situation, it said in a statement.

It pledged to continue cooperation “that directly benefits the civilian population” and called for the release of deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and other officials arrested by the coup leaders on Aug. 18. The Francophonie group also called for the immediate creation of a civilian-run transitional government.

The European Union will also be suspending its security training missions in Mali.

The EU missions in Mali have been “put temporarily on hold because the circumstances didn’t allow them to continue their normal activity,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after meeting in Berlin Wednesday with defense ministers from the bloc’s 27 member countries.

“But they are still there and they will start working again as soon as possible. These activities are crucial. We have invested a lot, the European Union has invested a lot in Mali and we don’t want to waste this effort.”

The EU has trained about 18,000 soldiers but says it did not train any of the top officers responsible for the coup.

Borrell said that “we don’t train the armies to be putschists.”

He added that the most important leader in the coup was trained in Russia and others in Britain and the U.S.

The EU also announced that it expanded its training mandate to include Niger and Burkina Faso.

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Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.