The leader of the junta in Mali last night promised to reinstate the constitution, hours before a deadline set by West African neighbours to start handing over power.
Captain Amadou Sanogo, who led a military coup on 22 March, also pledged to re-establish all state institutions before transfering power back to civilians through democratic elections.
The announcement came as northern rebels entered the ancient trading post of Timbuktu. The 15-nation Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) had threatened sanctions including a crippling closure of borders around the land-locked state if the junta did not begin handing power back by midnight last night.
The aim of the coup by disgruntled soldiers was to step up the battle against the northern rebels. But it has backfired, emboldening the Tuareg-led rebellion to seize new ground in its quest for a northern homeland. Yesterday, they entered their latest target, Timbuktu, after government forces fled.
“We are making the solemn commitment to re-establish, from today, the Malian constitution of 25 February 1992 and the institutions of the republic,” Capt Sanogo said in a statement read out at a barracks outside the capital Bamako. The US-trained captain, who has risen from obscurity to lead the junta said they had agreed to consult with local political forces to set up a transition body “with the aim of organising peaceful, free, open and democratic elections in which we will not take part”.
There was no immediate reaction from ECOWAS.
However, the re-establishment of the constitution and state institutions were two measures named earlier by an envoy from Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaore, the crisis mediator, as essential preconditions for Mali to avoid sanctions.
Boosted by heavily-armed Tuareg returning from Libya and tapping into frustrations over underdevelopment in the north, Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) rebels launched a push for independence in mid January.
The rebels have fought alongside another rebel group seeking to impose sharia law, underscoring the complex web of military activity in a zone that is also home to local al-Qaeda groups and smugglers.
The northern administrative centre of Kidal fell on Friday, followed on Saturday by the garrison town of Gao. Timbuktu’s capture would largely complete the rebels’ plan of seizing Mali’s north, a desert territory bigger than France.
“They have arrived in the town. They are planting their flag,” El Hadj Baba Haidara, member of parliament for Timbuktu, said by telephone.
A resident said the MNLA rebels had planted their flag at the governor’s office, the mayor’s office and the main military camp.
It was not clear last night if the rebels were in full control as an Arab-led militia remained after government forces abandoned the town.
Timbuktu, for centuries a major trading post in the Sahara, was fabled for its gold, slaves and other goods, but it fell into decline even before the French 19th-century occupation. Attempts to develop tourism have been hit by rising insecurity, following incidents including Westerners being kidnapped by local al-Qaeda agents.
Western and regional nations, already critical of ousted president Amadou Toure’s soft approach towards the Islamists, are likely to fret over a security void that the rebel push has left in the Sahara.
While coup leaders won early support from many Malians weary of Mr Toure’s rule, the latest military defeats and the sheer scale of foreign disapproval have weakened their position.
“Everywhere it is burning. Mali cannot fight on all fronts at the same time. Let us put our personal quarrels aside,” Siaka Diakite, secretary-general of the UNTM trade union, said in a statement.
Ivorian president Alassane Ouattara has said he expected Mr Toure, who has said he is safe in an undisclosed location in Mali, to see out the remaining two months of his mandate before a transitional national unity government was named.
He added: “Then elections should be held between 21 and 40 days later if that is possible.”