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West African envoys suspend talks with Mali's military junta

BAMAKO – West African mediators suspended talks with Mali's military junta Monday after failing to reach an agreement on who will lead the volatile country during a transitional back to democracy after last week's coup and how long that process will take, a diplomat said.

The junta calling itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People has proposed pushing back Mali's next election until 2023, while leaders from the regional West African bloc known as ECOWAS and others want a return to civilian rule as soon as possible.

A diplomat who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to journalists said meetings with the junta that seized power last week have been suspended for now.

The diplomat said as long as it's unclear who will lead Mali and how long it will be until the country's next election ECOWAS will keep its sanctions on Mali to maintain pressure on the junta.

Leaders from ECOWAS, who initially called for ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to be returned to power, have suspended Malian's membership in the 15-nation bloc and have closed their borders with the country.

The ECOWAS delegation headed to Bamako's airport Monday, hours after junta spokesman Ismael Wague told reporters that no timeline for the transition back to democracy had been established but that the Malian people would be consulted.

But one participant in the negotiations between the military leaders and neighboring countries said the junta wants to revise Mali's constitution first and suggested 2023 for a new election. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

That time frame, though, is more than double the time it took to hold a vote after a similar coup in 2012, and would allow the soldiers who overthrew a democratically elected president to remain in power for years.

Right after the coup, ECOWAS leaders said they were considering mobilizing a standby military force to restore civilian rule, but that prospect has become unlikely after thousands took to the streets of the capital Friday to support the junta.

The 75-year-old former president, who is still being held by the junta at the Kati military barracks, also told the ECOWAS envoys that he does not want to return to office.

“President Keita told us that he has resigned, that he was not forced to do so and that he does not want to return," former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said Monday. "He says he wants a quick transition to allow the country return as soon as possible to a civilian regime.”

To the outside world, however, last week's political upheaval bore all the hallmarks of a coup d'etat. Soldiers at the Kati barracks launched a mutiny and then began rounding up officials in Bamako. They later encircled the private residence where Keita was staying with his prime minister and fired shots into the air. The junta has maintained they took him into custody for his own protection.

Just before midnight, Keita appeared on state broadcaster ORTM and announced his immediate resignation and the dissolution of his government and the National Assembly.

“I will comply, because I wish no blood to be shed to keep me in power," he said in the hastily announced address.

Keita, who had won the 2013 democratic election in a landslide, was re-elected five years later. His popularity plummeted though as his government failed to rein in Islamic extremists in the north and the military faced punishing losses from the jihadists. Others pointed to his use of a private jet and his son's influential position in the National Assembly as signs he was out of touch with a suffering nation.

International observers have expressed fears the upheaval could allow Islamic extremists to extend their reach in the country. Mali has been fighting against Islamic extremists with heavy international support for more than seven years, and jihadists have previously used power vacuums in Mali to expand their territory.

Mali’s opposition coalition, the M5-RFP, has welcomed the ouster of Keita but they insisted they remained “deeply attached to democracy.”

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Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal.