Mali's military leader Assimi Goita said on Monday that he remains open to dialogue with the ECOWAS regional bloc after it imposed sanctions on Bamako over delayed elections.
In a sharp escalation after months of simmering diplomatic tensions, leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Sunday agreed to shutter borders with the Sahel state and impose a trade embargo.
That decision was backed on Monday by France, Mali's former colonial power, at the UN Security Council.
The West African bloc also agreed to cut financial aid, freeze Mali's assets at the Central Bank of West African States, and to recall their ambassadors from the country.
"Even if we regret the illegitimate, illegal and inhumane nature of certain decisions, Mali remains open to dialogue with the Economic Community of West African States to find a consensus," Goita said on state TV.
Goita did not detail how his regime would respond to the stringent sanctions.
The coordinated action against Mali followed a proposal by its army-dominated government last month to stay in power for up to five years before staging elections — despite international demands that it respect a promise to hold elections in February.
ECOWAS also rejected a revised proposal the regime, led by Goita who took power in a military coup in August 2020, submitted to the bloc on the eve of the weekend summit.
Return to democracy
At a UN Security Council meeting on West Africa Monday, the French ambassador to the United Nations, Nicolas de Riviere, voiced his country's "full support for ECOWAS's efforts".
Relations between Mali and France, its former colonial master which has thousands of troops in the country, have deteriorated since the 2020 coup that ousted elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
US ambassador Richard Mills urged Bamako "to return to democracy in a timely fashion", but stopped short of taking a stand on the ECOWAS sanctions, which it is reviewing.
After an earlier wave of sanctions from ECOWAS following the 2020 coup, Goita had promised to restore civilian rule in February 2022 presidential and legislative elections.
But he staged a second coup in May 2021, forcing out an interim civilian government, disrupting the reform timetable, and provoking widespread international condemnation.
As ECOWAS continued to insist on elections in February, the military regime argued that rampant insecurity posed a problem and that peaceful elections took priority over speed.
Mali has struggled to quell a brutal jihadist insurgency that started in 2012 before spreading to Burkina Faso and Niger. Swathes of its vast territory lie outside government control.
Russia called for the junta's efforts to restore order in the country to be supported.
Moscow said it "understood the difficulties" in organising new elections when a lack of security might undermine the outcome.
Western politicians have condemned what they say is Moscow's growing influence in Mali, some alleging that the military regime has hired mercenaries from Russia's controversial Wagner group.
'All necessary measures'
Mali's junta has also announced the recall of its ambassadors in ECOWAS states and the closure of its borders in response to the sanctions, vowing to take "all necessary measures to retaliate".
But the military junta in Guinea said in a statement read out on state television there that it would keep its links with Mali open, saying it had nothing to do with the sanctions agreed at the weekend ECOWAS summit.
ECOWAS has suspended Guinea from the bloc and imposed some sanctions in retaliation for the September 5 coup that deposed president Alpha Conde.
The effects of sanctions against Mali are already beginning to be felt.
Air France, for example, announced that it would no longer be serving Mali's capital Bamako due to "regional geopolitical tensions".
Mali's junta has said that the new ECOWAS sanctions will "affect populations already severely affected by the security crisis and the health crisis".
Malians have voiced concern on social media about the risk of future shortages because of the trade embargo.
The National Union of Workers of Mali (UNTM) issued a statement Monday condemning the ECOWAS sanctions "inflicted on the people of Mali".
A landlocked nation of 19 million people, Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world.