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African troops on standby over Mali

The body representing nations in western Africa has suspended Mali and has put a peacekeeping force on standby in the most direct threat yet to the junta that seized control in a military coup last week.

Alassane Ouattara, the president of Ivory Coast who is the rotating chair of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, told reporters after an emergency meeting in the capital of Ivory Coast that Mali's democracy cannot be abandoned.

A delegation of five African presidents will head to Mali in the next 48 hours to try to "restore constitutional order".

There is no immediate plan to deploy the peacekeepers who will be put on standby in the event that a military intervention is needed, said Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, the president of the ECOWAS commission. The move suggests the bloc may consider force if the mutinous soldiers who overthrew Mali's democratically elected leader do not stand down.

"We cannot allow this country endowed with such precious democratic instruments, dating back at least two decades, to leave history by regressing. It's why Mali needs to immediately return its democratic institutions to normal," said Mr Ouattara. "This position is non-negotiable."

The United States, the European Union and France have cut off all but essential aid, representing a loss of tens of millions of pounds. Additional sanctions from the region would be a further blow to the junta, which seized control of the nation of 15 million in the wake of a mutiny at a military camp in the capital last Wednesday.

In the chaos that ensued, soldiers stormed the presidential palace and drove into hiding president Amadou Toumani Toure, who was due to step down next month.

Besides the threat of military intervention, Mali's neighbours could suffocate the nation financially. Many of the 15 nations represented on the regional bloc share the same currency, and they could decide to cut off Mali's supply of cash.

Also if nearby Ivory Coast were to shut its border, landlocked Mali, a nation twice the size of Texas spanning an expanse of scrubland, verdant hills and desert dunes, would run out of petrol, which is trucked in from Ivorian refineries.

The coup took the region and the world by surprise, because Mali has long been held up as one of the few established democracies in the troubled western corner of the continent. Late on Tuesday on state television, the newscaster announced that Mali would soon be under a new constitution, indicating the coup leaders are moving forward with plans to create a new government, and not restoring the nation's democratic order.

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