West African leaders on Sunday backed tough new sanctions on Mali including border closures and a trade embargo, saying the military regime's delays to a return to civilian rule were "totally unacceptable".
The leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also agreed to cut financial aid and freeze Mali's assets at the Central Bank of West African States, according to a final declaration.
And the bloc will recall its member states' ambassadors to Mali, the leaders decided at an extraordinary closed-door gathering in Ghana.
The proposal by Mali's military rulers to hold elections in December 2026 "simply means that an illegitimate military transition Government will take the Malian people hostage during the next five years", said the ECOWAS.
The meeting followed months of increasing tensions over the timetable for restoring civilian rule in Mali after two coups and a military takeover.
In August 2020, army officers led by Colonel Assimi Goita toppled the elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita amid street protests against his unpopular rule.
Under threat of sanctions, Goita promised to restore civilian rule in February 2022 after holding 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 diplomatic condemnation.
ECOWAS insisted that Mali hold elections in February.
But the junta then said it would set an election date only after holding a nationwide conference, arguing a peaceful vote was more important than speed.
- 'It's a joke' -
On December 30, after Mali's reform conference ended, the government suggested a transition period of between six months and five years, starting from January 1 this year.
But ECOWAS mediator Goodluck Jonathan asked the regime to revise that plan during a visit last week, Mali's foreign minister said.
On Saturday, the junta submitted a new proposed timetable, Malian state television reported.
The move was intended "to maintain dialogue and good cooperation with ECOWAS", said Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop, without elaborating.
"Mali's counter-proposal is for a four-year transition," said a senior official from Ghana, which holds the ECOWAS chair. "It's a joke."
The 15-nation bloc has led the push for the former French colony to honour its commitment to stage elections early this year.
The bloc's push to ensure a return to civilian rule has put its credibility on the line as it seeks to uphold fundamental principles of governance and contain regional instability.
- 'Concern' across the region -
Swathes of Mali lie outside of state control, with the government struggling to quell a jihadist insurgency that has raged since 2012.
At a summit on December 12, ECOWAS leaders reiterated demands that the elections be held by February 27 as initially planned.
They maintained sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans within the ECOWAS region against around 150 junta figures and their families, and threatened further "economic and financial" measures.
"The extension of the transition period to five years is causing concern in the whole West African region," the eight-member union's current chair, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, president of Burkina Faso, told that earlier meeting.
Sanctions have proved effective in the past. ECOWAS responded to Goita's first coup in 2020 by shuttering Mali's borders, imposing trade restrictions and suspending the vast nation of 19 million people from its decision-making bodies.
Mali's army installed a civilian-led government in response and pledged to hold elections, which led to a lifting of the earlier economic sanctions, although Mali remains suspended from the bloc's main bodies.
ECOWAS did not impose sanctions immediately after the second putsch, but in November opted for targeted measures against individual junta members over perceived delays in the election preparations.
Analysts say regional leaders must take into account the risks of pitting Malians against ECOWAS.