Mali's junta has called a national meeting on the country's future as it seeks a way out of a growing crisis and threatened to prosecute ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure.
"We call the entire political class and all civil society actors to ... a national meeting which will begin on April 5," coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo told journalists on Tuesday, adding that Toure "could be the object of judicial proceedings for high treason and financial wrongdoing."
The junta's offer to hold open-ended talks on transition to civilian rule came as people rushed to stock up on petrol and cash after the 15-state ECOWAS West African bloc launched trade and diplomatic sanctions aimed at forcing the leaders of last month's coup to stand down.
The sanctions are likely to have a stronlgly negative affect on Mali's fuel supply. The landlocked country imports all its fuel, over land from neighbouring Ivory Coast and Senegal, both of which are located on Africa's Atlantic coast.
The country's electricity grid is also expected to falter in coming weeks, or even days.
Meanwhile, the African Union on Tuesday imposed travel bans and asset freeze sanctions on Mali's junta after it failed to heed the pan-African body's call to restore constitutional order.
Moments later, the AU announced targeted sanctions on leaders of armed factions fighting in northern Mali.
April is one of the hottest months of the year in Mali and the country's hydropower system is unable to carry the load because of low water levels. Fuel is used in the hot months to run diesel generators.
Bathily Seye, the owner of a local chain of gas stations called Afrique Oil, said on Tuesday that if no new shipments are allowed in, his 15 pumps will run dry in days.
"We don't have our own gas. It's all imported,'' he said. "There is absolutely nothing here. We don't have any refining capacity. ... I don't have the stock. In two days, my pumps will run out of gas.''
'Open to discussions'
Mali's president was sent into hiding when a group of disgruntled soldiers started a mutiny at a military base located around 10km from the presidential palace.
From the base, they decided to march on the palace. In a matter of hours, they succeeded in reversing more than two decades of democracy.
The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been harsh in its condemnation of the coup. They set a 72-hour deadline to restore civilian rule, which expired on Monday. When members of the junta failed to do so, they announced that sanctions would go into effect immediately.
The soldiers who grabbed power said they did so because of the former president's mishandling of an uprising in the north by Tuareg rebels.
Since the coup, however, the rebels have effectively seized control of the entire northern half of the nation, taking the three major towns of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu over the weekend.
The US called on Tuesday for rebel forces in northern Mali to "cease military operations", warning the country's territorial integrity was at stake.
Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the Islamist group Ansar Dine, which has taken control of the city of Timbuktu, is "closely linked" to Al-Qaeda's African branch.
France wants the UN to emphasise the "Islamist danger" facing Mali in the statement it is drawing up on the troubled west African state, Juppe said.
A former Malian minister, Mohamed Ag Erlaf, identified himself as the chief negotiator for Mali's junta and said the main rebel group that seized the north is willing to hold talks on the future of the country.
Erlaf told the Associated Press news agency on Tuesday that the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad is open to discussions.
An NMLA spokesman in Paris told France 24 TV late on Monday that the rebels have had no direct contact with the junta which toppled Mali's government. Moussa Ag Attaher said they do not recognise coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo.
He said: "Neither the international community nor the population of Mali recognise him. If we are to negotiate, it needs to be with someone that is recognised.''
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|Timothy V. Gatto|
|William A. Cook|