BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali's interim prime minister came under growing pressure Monday to form a unity government after tens of thousands gathered in the capital over the weekend to call for action nearly five months after a military coup plunged the country into chaos.
West African regional leaders had imposed an Aug. 10 deadline, which Mali's interim leaders have failed to meet. The delays have raised concerns about the fate of the country's political transition, especially as Mali's coup leader simultaneously has failed to relinquish power entirely.
On Sunday, an estimated 50,000 people took part in a rally in Mali's capital, urging the interim leaders to finalize the unity government. President Dioncounda Traore also met with Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra over the weekend, according to a statement released by the presidency.
"He reaffirmed his confidence in the prime minister and instructed him to make his nominations in an attempt to form a national unity government," the statement issued Sunday said.
Traore also said he was giving civil society groups and others until Tuesday to make their recommendations.
West African regional leaders have threatened to expel Mali from the group and impose sanctions if the country fails to assemble a unity government as promised.
Diarra has become an increasingly divisive figure in Mali in recent weeks because of allegations that he's been seen meeting with coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo. The reports have raised suspicions that Sanogo — and not the interim leaders — is making key decisions about the country's future.
Critics want the unity government formed as soon as possible in hopes it can better fight radical Islamists who now rule the country's vast north, an area the size of France.
"The authorities in Bamako are losing time to take back northern Mali, while the Islamists are gaining territory every day," said Mahamane Maiga, who was among 50,000 people who took part in the demonstration organized by the High Islamic Council of Mali over the weekend.
The militants have solidified their hold amid the power vacuum in Bamako — even stoning to death an adulterous couple and chopping off the hand of a suspected thief in their quest to implement strict Islamic law known as Shariah.
The radical Islamists also have sparked an international outcry by destroying the tombs of Sufi saints and other cultural heritage sites in the fabled city of Timbuktu. The group argues that such graves encourage people to orient their prayer toward the deceased rather than toward God.
Mutinous soldiers staged a March 21 coup just months before the country was to hold elections, driving the country's democratically elected leader into exile and reversing two decades of democratic rule in one of the only stable countries in this volatile patch of Africa.
Sanogo, the coup leader, later signed an agreement pledging to return the country to civilian rule. An interim president and prime minister were named as part of that deal.
Even after signing that agreement, though, Sanogo showed little interest in stepping aside completely. Reporters have seen construction crews at his office — pouring cement, updating the electrical wiring and even hauling in new furniture.
Meanwhile, an angry mob that backed Sanogo brutally assaulted the country's interim president in May, beating him until he lost consciousness. Traore sought medical treatment in France and only returned to the country late last month.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.