ACCRA, Ghana (AP) -- West African regional leaders imposed new sanctions Sunday on Mali, suspending most commerce and financial aid to the country after its military rulers said they would stay in power for four more years instead of holding an election next month as promised.
In a veiled threat at possible military pressure, the regional bloc known as ECOWAS activated its standby force, saying it "will have to be ready for any eventuality."
The sanctions mark the steepest consequences for Mali to date, and include land and air border closures with other countries belonging to ECOWAS, according to a statement released after a day-long meeting in Ghana's capital.
The junta led by Col. Assimi Goita initially had agreed to hold a new election in late February, 18 months after it first seized power. The military leadership now says the next presidential election will take place instead in 2026, giving Goita four more years in power.
In a statement, regional leaders called this timeframe "totally unacceptable" and said it "simply means that an illegitimate military transition government will take the Malian people hostage during the next five years."
The business sanctions won't apply to essentials like pharmaceuticals, and medical supplies and equipment to fight COVID-19. Petroleum products and electricity are also excluded, the regional bloc said.
But all of Mali's financial assets held in the regional bloc's central bank and other commercial banks will be blocked. And ECOWAS will suspend its financial aid to Mali. Previous sanctions had only targeted junta leadership with travel bans and asset freezes.
After overthrowing Mali's democratically elected president, coup leader Goita had promised to swiftly return the country to democratic rule. Doubts deepened about his intentions, though, after he effectively launched a second coup nine months later, forcing out the chosen transitional civilian leaders and becoming president himself.
Mali's junta maintains that elections can't be held because of deepening insecurity across the country, where Islamic extremists have been fighting a decade-long insurgency. They also say it's essential to draft a new constitution and put it before voters in a referendum, a lengthy endeavor that would pave the way for new local and legislative elections before any presidential vote.
The French military, which helped push the militants from power in northern Mali in 2013, is now in the process of drawing down its troop presence in Mali. Many fear their departure will only deepen the crisis despite the presence of U.N. peacekeepers and regional forces bolstering Malian troops' efforts.
Critics of the junta fear that the political turmoil will further undermine the Malian military's response to Islamic extremist attacks at a time when they will increasingly be bearing the responsibility for fighting militants.