Mali’s military junta began talks with opposition groups on Saturday on its promise to hand power back to civilians, after mounting pressure from neighbouring countries in the weeks since it overthrew the nation’s leader.
The West African country has long been plagued by instability, a simmering jihadist revolt, ethnic violence and endemic corruption, prompting a clique of rebel soldiers to detain president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita last month.
Keita himself flew out of the country Saturday evening for further treatment in the United Arab Emirates, after two days in hospital in Mali following a mini-stroke.
Mali’s new military rulers have pledged to step down after a transition period.
But they are under pressure from the country’s neighbours and former colonial ruler France for a swift transition to civilian rule.
The talks in Bamako are being held under junta chief Assimi Goita but he was not present Saturday, a military source said.
“Since August 18, we are charting a new history for our country,” junta number two Malick Diaw told the opening session.
The summit had originally been planned for last weekend but was called off at the last minute after a quarrel between the military and the June 5 Movement.
– Opposition seeks transition role –
It was the June 5 movement that spearheaded the protests that led up to the toppling of president Keita.
The opposition coalition of civil and religious leaders has demanded that the military rulers give it a role in the transition to civilian rule. But it was not invited for the transition talks last Saturday.
It was included in the rescheduled talks, along with political parties, former rebels, unions, civil society organisations and media representatives.
However, a mostly Tuareg coalition of armed rebel groups known as the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA) was not present on Saturday.
The National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), as the junta is known, said parallel talks were taking place in regional capitals, led by regional governors.
But in Kidal, a northeastern city controlled by the CMA, “consultations were postponed for lack of compromise between the CNSP and the CMA”, an administrative official told AFP.
The CMA, which signed a peace accord with Keita’s government in 2015, said it expected that previous agreement to remain in force.
The deal was meant to disarm rebel groups and integrate them into the national army, but its implementation has dragged on for years despite international pressure.
Meanwhile two French soldiers with the anti-jihadist Barkhane force in Mali were killed and a third wounded in Tessalit province north of Kidal, when their armoured vehicle hit an improvised explosive device, the French presidency said.
The deaths brought to 45 the number of French soldiers who have died serving in the Sahel region since 2013.
– Closed borders –
One of the key issues in the talks is the length of the transition to civilian rule.
Originally the junta proposed a three-year transition, before bringing that down to two years. The June 5 Movement has said it wants a transition period of 18 to 24 months.
The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc, which has imposed sanctions and closed borders to Mali to put pressure on the junta, has called for elections within 12 months.
West African leaders will meet via videoconference on Monday with the Mali situation at the top of their agenda.
The ousted president Keita, who has been under house arrest in Bamako, flew out of the country Saturday evening, the junta, family sources and contacts at the airport said.
On Thursday, he left a hospital in Bamako after a two-day stay during which he was treated for a mini-stroke.