BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali’s transitional president fired the prime minister and then resigned Wednesday as both remained in the custody of the military, threatening to plunge the troubled West African nation into further instability.
The resignation by the leader of an 18-month civilian transitional government came as representatives of the West African regional bloc were in Mali to mediate the political crisis, officials said.
The United Nations, the African Union and other international bodies, as well as the U.S., urged Mali’s military to release the transitional leaders. Late in the day, the U.N. Security Council charged that the resignation and firing were forced and demanded the officials be freed immediately and civilian government restored.
Transitional President Bah N’Daw dismissed Prime Minister Moctar Ouane before handing in his own resignation letter to the transitional vice president, Col. Assimi Goita, who led the 2020 coup, according to a military official. A West African diplomat involved in mediations also confirmed the resignation and dismissal. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak to the press on the subject.
The conditions under which the two transitional leaders are being held are not known.
Goita likely intends to take power himself to control the transition, the diplomat said.
On Tuesday, Goita retook control of Mali, saying in a statement he had deposed the president and prime minister because they had formed a new government without consulting him. The two were arrested by soldiers Monday, hours after naming a new Cabinet that did not include two major former junta leaders.
International mediation with Mali’s military, led by former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan of the West African regional body known as ECOWAS, began Tuesday and stretched into Wednesday at the Kati military camp outside the capital, Bamako, where the deposed leaders have been held.
The Security Council strongly condemned the arrest of the transitional president, prime minister and other officials in a statement Wednesday evening. It called for their immediate and unconditional release and said the country’s civilian-led transition must be restored and troops should return to their barracks.
The statement, which was approved by all 15 council members after closed consultations, said that “imposing a change of transitional leadership by force, including through forced resignations, is unacceptable.”
French President Emmanuel Macron described the week’s events as a coup and warned of repercussions, including targeted sanctions.
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said Wednesday, “We were very clear with the junta: The transition must include civilians. It must be peaceful, it must be inclusive and it must be limited in time. What has happened … constitutes for us a rupture of confidence.”
The European Union has also warned that it is “ready to consider targeted measures against political and military leaders who obstruct the Malian transition.”
The United States strongly condemned the detention of the civilian leaders, with the State Department saying it would be suspending security assistance to the Malian forces.
“The United States will also consider targeted measures against political and military leaders who impede Mali’s civilian-led transition to democratic governance,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
He said the U.S. was working closely with the local transition monitoring committee and other international actors to achieve the immediate and unconditional release of the government leaders held.
“A democratic, civilian-led government presents the best opportunity to achieve security and prosperity in Mali and the wider Sahel region,” the statement said.
Jonathan, who arrived Tuesday night with the West African delegation, said they came to Mali to listen to different parties, including the military, civil society groups and others.
“There is cordial discussion, friendly discussion going on for the common interest of the people of Mali” Jonathan told journalists Tuesday night after meeting with members of the military and government.
Jonathan earlier acted as mediator in the political crisis last year after the junta detained former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on Aug. 18, forcing him to resign. ECOWAS previously threatened the junta with sanctions if it did not install a civilian president and prime minister, and shorten the transitional period to 18 months.
When Goita released a statement Tuesday, he pledged to move forward with new elections in 2022 as previously promised. But his display of force raises fears that there could be further significant interference by the junta that overthrew the last democratically elected president.
The instability also worries the international community, as the new political unrest could further destabilize efforts to control Mali’s long-running Islamic insurgency. The U.N. now spends some $1.2 billion annually on a peacekeeping mission in Mali and France’s military has spent eight years trying to stabilize its former colony amid the ongoing threat.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for calm and the immediate release of the detained civilian leaders, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said late Tuesday.
“This action has serious consequences for Mali and the region as a whole,” Dujarric said.
Goita, who led the junta calling itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, has served as Mali’s vice president in the transitional government formed last September. He has held that position despite initial calls from the international community for an entirely civilian-led transition.
Associated Press writers Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal, and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.
Baba Ahmed, The Associated Press