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West African countries have imposed a series of severe sanctions on Mali after its ruling military junta announced a delay in the elections it had pledged to hold in February.

The 15-member Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) regional bloc will close its borders to the landlocked country, implement economic sanctions and sever diplomatic ties.

These moves come as the international community increases pressure on the junta, which seized power in two coups over the past year. The junta has proposed holding elections in December 2025. Bamako is also at the centre of a row with Paris over its proposed use of Russian mercenaries.

Ecowas announced the sanctions after an emergency summit in Ghana’s capital Accra, calling the proposed delay “unacceptable”. The central bank of the eight-nation CFA franc zone will freeze Malian state assets, along with those held in Ecowas commercial banks.

Mali’s junta late on Sunday called the sanctions “illegal” and said it would recall its ambassadors in west Africa, close its own land and air borders to them and potentially reconsider its membership in Ecowas. Eighteen months after it first seized power, the junta has also come under fire for failing to outline how it will tackle the jihadist insurgency that has killed thousands and displaced millions across the region.

The sanctions come amid rising tensions with ex-colonial power France, which is leading the fight against jihadism in the Sahel. President Emmanuel Macron has expressed contempt for what he has called an “illegitimate” government in Bamako, and a junta clinging to power it seized illegally.

Paris announced last summer it would halve its 5,000 troop counterterrorism mission in the region, Operation Barkhane. At about that time, Bamako began building a stronger relationship with Russia, and started talks to hire mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, to replace departing French troops.

Reuters reported last week that Russian soldiers had arrived in the northern city of Timbuktu, operating out of a former French base that Barkhane had recently departed. It is unclear if these were regular Russian soldiers as part of a bilateral agreement or the mercenaries. A northern Mali official told the FT that some in the region might welcome Wagner’s arrival, despite allegations of gross human rights abuses by its mercenaries in Libya, Syria and the Central African Republic.

“The north is actually taken out of control by the jihadist groups — we’re paying taxes to the jihadists, everything,” the official said. “So if they can get them out, it may be worth it.”

The EU last month imposed sanctions on Wagner, three related entities and eight individuals for alleged abuses in Africa and the Middle East.

Colonel Assimi Goita, now interim president, led a small group of soldiers to overthrow president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020, amid a wave of street protests against his administration’s perceived corruption, neglect and ineptitude. He forced out an interim civilian government last May, giving the junta full power, but promised to restore civilian rule by this February.