US suspends aid to Mali’s government
The United States is suspending at least $13 million of its roughly $140 million in annual aid to Mali following last month's coup in the West African nation, the State Department said on Wednesday.
The suspension affects U.S. assistance for Mali's ministry of health, public school construction and the government's efforts to boost agricultural production.
The United States, which sees Mali as an important partner in regional efforts to combat Islamic extremism, has warned that Mali's political crisis was putting the territorial integrity of the country at risk.
U.S. law bars aid "to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree."
"The rest of the assistance will continue but anything that was directly going into the government programs and ministries has to be suspended," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.
Mali's junta postponed on Wednesday a national convention meant to end the crisis sparked by their coup, which has led to international isolation and allowed Tuareg rebels to seize control of the northern half of the country.
Colonel Moussa Coulibaly, an adviser to the head of the junta, said the talks, which political parties and civil society groups had earlier said they would boycott, were postponed to provide more time for preparations.
"Given material difficulties and the short time we had to prepare for it, we have decided today ... to postpone the convention to a later date in order to better organise," Coulibaly said, adding that a new date will be announced later.
Playing into the hands of al Qaeda
France and the United Nations warned that the seizure of northern Mali by rebels was playing into the hands of local al Qaeda units, with Paris urging Algeria and other neighbours to do more to tackle the threat.
Mali, long one of the most stable democracies in West Africa, was plunged into turmoil by a March 22 coup, led by low- and mid-ranking officers frustrated with President Amadou Toumani Toure's handling of a Tuareg-led rebellion in the north.
Junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo has shrugged off trade, diplomatic and financial sanctions imposed by Mali's neighbours and proposed a convention to map out a return to civilian rule.
Boycott and sanctions
But a grouping of 50 political parties and civil society organisations rejected the idea on Wednesday, saying it would not produce a legitimate government. "The holding of the convention is contrary to and incompatible with a return to constitutional order," the grouping, known as the FDR, said.
Regional bodies and Western powers, most of which have frozen aid, want the army to step down before sanctions are lifted.
Sanogo has said the main reason for the coup was to restore security to the north, but separatist northern rebels exploited the leadership vacuum to seize the north of the country.
They have been joined by Islamists bent on imposing Islamic law, sharia, throughout the moderate Muslim state, the latest security worry for a region battling organised crime and home-grown militant groups such as Nigeria's Boko Haram.
"We fear that in this confused situation al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) will take advantage of the situation to expand its perimeter of activity and strengthen the terrorist threat," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.
AQIM is a mostly autonomous wing that emerged from the Algerian Salafist movement in 2007. The group, believed to have a few hundred members, has taken advantage of weak central government and poverty to mount sporadic attacks on local armies and kidnap Westerners, earning millions of dollars in ransoms.
The most prominent of the rebel fighters are the MNLA, fighting for a separate state in north Mali. But Ansar Dine, a local Islamist group trying to impose sharia, is also present.
"Our fear is based on AQIM's endemic presence in the region and the links we know between AQIM and Ansar Dine," Valero said, calling on Mali's neighbours to work together to prevent the rise of Islamists in the region.
Tuaregs still in control
The MNLA have said they only want to control the northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu in a desert nation called Azawad. It is not clear how far Ansar Dine is ready to push.
A resident of Gao said by telephone: "All the banks have been smashed up, the health centres have been smashed, everything has been destroyed, all the administration centres have been burned, the army is totally absent, there's no medicine.
"It's the Tuaregs who are in control, they tell people to stay at home. It's a real catastrophe, they say in three days' time there will be no more fuel or electricity."