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Mali weighs unity government

01 August 2012, 08:44

Bamako - The clock was ticking on Tuesday for Bamako to announce a unity government that mediators hope will be able to wrest back Mali's north, occupied by al-Qaeda-linked extremists.

The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) regional bloc gave Mali's interim authorities until Tuesday to form the unity government or face sanctions, however the country is likely to benefit from an extension.

Key mediator Djibrill Bassole, foreign minister of Burkina Faso, said on Monday that interim President Dioncounda Traore was likely to be granted a "supplementary extension" after his return from Paris.

Traore spent two months in France after being attacked by opponents to his appointment, and the bloc had lost patience with Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra's government's inability to tackle the extremist occupation.

"The essential has been done, the president has returned, he has addressed the nation on the necessity to put in place transition bodies, including a government of national union," Bassole said.

The hardline Islamists who occupied the vast desert north four months ago have tightened control over the area, on Sunday dragging an unmarried couple to the centre of the town of Aguelhok for a public stoning.

It was the first reported execution according to strict sharia law since the occupation.

Mali's government on Tuesday expressed horror at the "dark-age practice".

"The government learned with indignation and astonishment of the stoning to death of a couple in Aguelhok by the extremists occupying northern Mali," read a statement from the communication ministry.

Gruesome and horrific act

"At the same time as it expresses its sympathy to the families of the victims, the government severely condemns this dark-age practice and assures that this act will not go unpunished."

The statement said government "reiterates its determination to continue to do everything to rapidly free the occupied zones in the north of Mali".

The hardline Islamists on Sunday placed an unmarried couple in holes in the ground and stoned them to death in front of about 200 people.

The small town of Aguelhok is controlled by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) allied with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) which is also present in the Kidal region.

The extremists occupied the main cities of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao in late March in the chaos following a coup in Bamako.

In Timbuktu Ansar Dine has imposed sharia, and destroyed ancient World Heritage sites seen as idolatrous.

Rights group Amnesty International condemned the "gruesome and horrific act of stoning."

"This killing is yet another human rights abuse committed by the combatants who control the north of Mali, and illustrates the climate of fear that armed opposition groups have created within the areas they control," said Paule Rigaud, Amnesty's deputy director for Africa, in a statement.

Physical violence

The rights body said the imposition of new behaviours in the previously secular Muslim region, such as new dress codes, banning secular music and preventing unmarried men and women from mixing had "been accompanied by intimidation and physical violence including deliberate and arbitrary killings”.

Once one of the region's stable democracies, Mali has crumbled into despair in half a year and the interim government which took over from the junta has been powerless in the face of the jihadist occupation.

Ecowas wants to send a 3 000-strong military force to Mali but is waiting for United Nations approval and a formal request from a more inclusive government.

Traore on Sunday announced the creation of new bodies tasked with ending the crisis.

In a televised address to the nation, he announced he would be in charge of a High Council of State, lead talks for a unity government himself and create a committee to negotiate with the Islamists.

"Mali will not collapse," Traore said several times during his speech.

The 70-year-old was appointed in April as a junta led by Captain Amadou Sanogo which ousted the regime of Amadou Toumani Toure on 22 March handed power to a civilian transition government.



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