BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali's interim leaders announced a new government late Monday, months after a military coup unleashed political chaos that allowed an Islamist takeover of the north and forced nearly half a million people to flee their homes.
The government has 31 ministers, including five who are viewed as close to coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo, who nominally handed over power to a civilian interim government months ago but still has not completely relinquished control.
None of the ministers in the new government are closely linked to the democratically elected president who was ousted in March, according to the list announced on state television.
West African regional leaders had threatened to expel Mali from the regional bloc and impose sanctions if the country failed to assemble a unity government as promised.
Mali's interim leaders already had missed an Aug. 10 deadline for doing so, raising concerns about the fate of the country's political transition at a time when rumors also swirled about the interim prime minister's ties to the coup leader.
Critics wanted Mali's 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 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 a strict version of Shariah, or Islamic law.
"I hope the new government together will make the liberation of the north its No. 1 priority," said Malian civil society leader Aboubacrine Assadek Ag Hamatta.
Mutinous soldiers staged their March 21 coup just months before the country was to hold elections, driving the country's democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure into exile not long before he was due to step down anyway.
The coup leader later signed an agreement pledging to return the country to civilian rule, and the interim president and prime minister were named as part of that deal.
Even after signing that agreement, though, the coup leader showed little interest in stepping aside completely. Reporters have seen construction crews at Sanogo's office — pouring cement, updating the electrical wiring and even hauling in new furniture.
Meanwhile, an angry mob that backed Sanogo brutally assaulted interim President Dioncounda Traore in May, beating him until he lost consciousness. Traore sought medical treatment in France and returned to the country only late last month.
Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra has become an increasingly divisive figure in Mali in recent weeks because of allegations that he's been seen meeting with the coup leader. The reports have raised suspicions that Sanogo — and not the interim administration — is making key decisions about the country's future.
Mali's crisis has displaced an estimated 435,624 people from their homes, with more than half of them fleeing to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations.