Malians took to the streets en masse on Friday, AFP correspondents saw, after the military junta called for protests against stringent sanctions imposed by the West Africa bloc ECOWAS over delayed elections. In the capital Bamako, thousands of people wearing the national colours of red, yellow and green gathered in a central square, for a rally staged by the military government, and sang patriotic songs. A large crowd also gathered in the northern city of Timbuktu, AFP correspondents reported. Social media also showed mass demonstrations in the towns of Kadiolo and Bougouni in the south. Leaders from the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) agreed to sanction Mali last week, imposing a trade embargo and shutting borders, in a decision later backed by the France, the United States and the European Union. The move followed a proposal by Mali’s junta to stay in power for up to five years before staging elections — despite international demands that it respect a promise to hold the vote in February. The junta cast the sanctions as “extreme” and “inhumane” and called for demonstrations. Strongman Colonel Assimi Goita, who first took power in a coup in August 2020, has also urged Malians to “defend our homeland”. On Friday, his office said the interim government had developed a “response plan” to the potentially crippling sanctions, without specifying details. It added that the government remained open to dialogue with regional institutions and did not intend to engage in “arm-wrestling”. Senior government figures attended the Bamako rally, an AFP correspondent said, and were applauded by the crowd. “Our country will be saved and liberated by the Malian army and the entire Malian people,” said Nouhoum Sarr, a member of Mali’s transitional legislature, at the rally. As well as closing borders and imposing a trade embargo, ECOWAS leaders also halted financial aid to Mali and froze the country’s assets at the Central Bank of West African States. The sanctions threaten to damage an already vulnerable economy in landlocked Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries. A brutal jihadist insurgency has also raged in Mali since 2012, with swathes of the vast country’s territory lying outside of government control. Mali is already beginning to feel the effects of the sanctions. Several airlines, including Air France, have suspended flights to Bamako. The country is also at risk of cash shortages. Kako Nubukpo, a commissioner at the West African Economic and Monetary Union, said that it is “cut off from the rest of the world”. France, Mali’s former colonial master, and the United States have both stated their support for the ECOWAS sanctions. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrel said on Thursday that Brussels will follow ECOWAS in taking action against Mali over delayed elections. The same day, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said it is “absolutely essential that the government of Mali present an acceptable election timetable”. Despite the pressure, many in Mali have rallied behind the military junta, with nationalist messages flooding social media. Mali’s relations with its neighbours and partners have steadily deteriorated since a coup led by Goita in August 2020 against president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Under threat of sanctions following that putsch, Goita had promised to hold presidential and legislative elections, and to restore civilian rule by February 2022. But he staged a de facto second coup in May 2021, forcing out an interim civilian government and disrupting the timetable to restore democracy. Goita also declared himself interim president. His government has argued that rampant insecurity in Mali prevents it from organising safe elections by the end of February. The mass turnout drew comment from French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “If it’s safe enough to demonstrate, surely it is safe enough to vote,” he said EU foreign ministers met in Brest, northwestern France. France has thousands of troops in Mali and neighbouring Sahel countries in west Africa as part of an anti-jihadist force. “We’re in Mali and we’re staying, but not under any conditions,” Le Drian said.