West African leaders met on Sunday in Ghana's capital Accra to review sanctions they have imposed on three military-ruled countries in their volatile region.
Heads of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were gathering to assess efforts to secure timetables and other guarantees for restoring civilian rule in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso.
Mali underwent coups in August 2020 and May 2021, followed by Guinea in September 2021 and Burkina Faso this January.
Fearing contagion in a region notorious for military takeovers, ECOWAS has imposed tough trade and economic sanctions against Mali, but lesser punishments against Guinea and Burkina.
Dominating the summit will be the review of a month-long bid to push the juntas to set an early timetable for returning to barracks.
ECOWAS in January imposed a trade and financial embargo on Mali after its military government unveiled a scheme to rule for five years.
At a June 4 summit, no decision was made for the three countries.
Opening Sunday's summit, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo said the 15-member bloc was committed to supporting the three countries' return to democratic order and would take appropriate decisions after hearing reports on their progress.
The sanctions have badly hit poor and landlocked Mali, whose economy is already under severe strain from a decade-long jihadist insurgency.
After months of bitter talks, the Malian authorities on Wednesday approved a plan to hold presidential elections in February 2024.
The vote will be preceded by a referendum on a revised constitution in March 2023 and legislative elections in late 2023.
The ECOWAS mediator in Mali, former Nigerian leader Goodluck Jonathan, visited the country last week. A member of his entourage told AFP Mali had made "enormous progress".
Mali's top diplomat Abdoulaye Diop on Friday said the recent political developments were moving the country towards a lifting of the sanctions.
But a new electoral law, adopted on June 17, could be a stumbling block in the talks as it allows a military figure to contest the presidential elections.
- Guinea transition 'unthinkable' -
Burkina Faso -- another Sahel country caught up in jihadist turmoil -- and Guinea have so far only been suspended from the bodies of the 15-nation bloc but could face harsher sanctions.
Burkina's junta has proposed a constitutional referendum in December 2024 and legislative and presidential elections in February 2025.
Visiting Ouagadougou for the second time in a month on Saturday, ECOWAS mediator Mahamadou Issoufou praised junta leader Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba and his government for their "openness to dialogue".
The timetable to enable a return to civilian rule and the situation of deposed leader Roch Marc Christian Kabore were also discussed, said the former president of Niger.
Political parties allied to Kabore denounced the junta's plans on Friday, saying they were not consulted in advance.
The situation appears more complex in Guinea, whose junta has refused an ECOWAS mediator and announced a 36-month transition -- a period that African Union chairman and Senegalese President Macky Sall has described as "unthinkable".
ECOWAS avoided ruling on sanctions at a June 4 meeting and instead gave itself another month to negotiate.
Guinea this week has led a diplomatic offensive to assuage the concerns of regional leaders.
The country's post-coup prime minister Mohamed Beavogui on Saturday met the United Nations' special representative for West Africa and the Sahel, Mahamat Saleh Annadif.
The government said it wanted to reassure its ECOWAS "brothers" of its commitment to undertaking a peaceful and inclusive democratic transition.
Guinea's military regime met the main political parties on Monday, but they have made their participation in the dialogue conditional on the nomination of an ECOWAS mediator.
Additional sources • AFP