Meeting at an extraordinary summit in Ivory Coast, the ECOWAS regional bloc vowed to send troops to Mali and Guinea-Bissau, both hit by recent military coups, to ensure a return to civilian rule.
AFP - West African leaders decided Thursday to send troops to coup-hit Mali and Guinea-Bissau to support their return to civilian rule and demanded coup leaders "return to barracks" in both countries.
At an extraordinary summit in Ivory Coast, the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also said the two countries must prepare for legislative and presidential elections within a year.
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, current head of ECOWAS, pledged a firm response to the instability "to prevent our sub-region from giving into terrorism and transnational criminality".
"The safety of Europe and of the United States now starts in the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea," Ouattara said.
The coup in Mali on March 22 allowed Tuareg separatist rebels and armed Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to take control of an area roughly the size of France in the remote desert north.
The troops would help with Mali's transition and "deal with any eventuality in the event of use of force for the recovery of the territorial integrity of Mali", said ECOWAS commission chief Desire Kadre Ouedraogo.
ECOWAS did not say troops would be sent to fight in the north of Mali.
"We expect negotiations first," said Ouedraogo. He said the first contingent would help ensure a safe transition but that, if talks failed, the deployment of combat troops would not be ruled out.
Regarding Mali's transitional government, "the heads of state and government decided that the transition period should last 12 months", followed by presidential and legislative elections, said ECOWAS.
In a warning to the coup leaders, the grouping urged them to "return to barracks" and refrain from arbitrary and unilateral actions.
Under an agreement between the bloc and the junta, the soldiers have handed power to a civilian government. But Ouedraogo warned that, despite the deal, "the junta still retains autocratic leanings".
ECOWAS also insisted that the toppled president, Amadou Toumani Toure, has the right to return home from exile in Senegal.
Turning to Guinea-Bissau -- a politically volatile country and drug trafficking hub between South America and Europe -- ECOWAS decided to deploy troops with immediate effect following its April 12 coup.
They gave the junta 72 hours to accept the decision or face diplomatic, economic and financial sanctions, a final statement said, also threatening prosecution before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Nigeria, Togo, Ivory Coast and Senegal will provide between "500 and 600 men" to be sent to Guinea-Bissau, said Ouedraogo.
The force, to be led by Barro Gnibanga of Burkina Faso, is to "facilitate the withdrawal of Angola's technical and military assistance mission from Guinea-Bissau, help in securing the transition process" and prepare the reform of the defence and security sector, said the statement.
ECOWAS also called for the immediate and unconditional release of Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior and interim President Raimundo Pereira, who were arrested during the coup, staged ahead of a run-off presidential election.