- U.N. Security Council says it wants a restoration of the democratic government
- African countries have said they will impose sanctions on the junta
- The military leader says a national convention will be held to decide Mali's future
- A Tuareg insurgency has taken control of regional capitals in northern Mali
The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday once again called for the restoration of the democratically elected government of Mali, which the military overthrew in a coup last month.
The council, which supports sanctions that have been put in place by other international bodies, called for calm.
"The Security Council strongly condemns the continued attacks, looting and seizure of territory carried out by rebel groups in the north of Mali and demands an immediate cessation of hostilities," it said in a statement.
The presence of al Qaeda in the region could further destabilize the situation, the Security Council warned.
The remarks came as the military junta that seized power in Mali said it would hold a national convention Thursday to determine the country's direction.
The military leaders, who overthrew Mali's president, will invite "the political class and all civil society representatives" to take part in the convention to decide what path to take "in a consensual manner, democratically and in all freedom," Capt. Amadou Sanogo, the junta leader, said at a news conference Tuesday.
The African Union said earlier Tuesday that it would impose more sanctions on Mali, one day after the Economic Community of West African States slapped the junta with travel and economic restrictions.
The AU supports the sanctions imposed by the ECOWAS in Mali and "further decided to impose their own sanctions, with asset freezes and travel bans against leaders of the military junta and all those involved in contributing to the 'destabilization' of Mali," said Ramtane Lamamra, commissioner for peace and security.
The AU also condemned recent attacks in the north by Tuareg rebel groups and declared "null and void" any of their statements or demands, adding them and all those involved in attacks in the region to the sanctions imposed.
On Monday, ECOWAS imposed a travel ban on the coup leaders and imposed a diplomatic and financial embargo that regional leaders discussed last week, ECOWAS Chairman Alassane Ouattara said.
"All diplomatic, economic, financial measures and others are applicable from today and will not be lifted until the re-establishment of constitutional order," said Ouattara, Ivory Coast's president.
He said ECOWAS leaders will meet again this week in Ivory Coast's main city of Abidjan to discuss the possible activation of troops from member states.
ECOWAS had given the officers until Monday to hand over power or face sanctions.
Under the sanctions, the five neighboring ECOWAS members will close their borders to landlocked Mali except for humanitarian purposes. Its member states are to deny Mali access to their ports, freeze Mali's accounts in regional banks and suspend Mali's participation in cultural and sporting events.
At the U.N. on Wednesday, Mali's representative, Oumar Dauo, questioned if such a step was needed.
"Is this the time to close the boarders to our country? Is this the time to leave our people thirsty and hungry?" he said.
Mali is occupied and has institutional problems, he said. The country needs "a way out of this crisis in which we have been submerged. This is a matter of survival today. We need assistance for Mali to get back on its feet."
Hours after ECOWAS' announcement, the U.S. State Department announced that it was imposing sanctions on travel to the United States on people "who block Mali's return to civilian rule and a democratically elected government" and on their immediate relatives. Included are "those who actively promote Captain Amadou Sanogo and the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy, who seized power from democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Toure on March 21," it said in a statement.
The United States released a statement earlier Tuesday in support of the West African states, saying it is "deeply concerned about the ongoing political crisis in Mali."
"We also urge all armed rebels to engage in dialogue with civilian leaders in (the capital city of) Bamako to find a nonviolent path forward for national elections and a peaceful coexistence," said Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the State Department.
The department warned U.S. citizens against all travel to the country and authorized the departure of nonemergency personnel and all eligible relatives.
Senou International Airport in Bamako remained open, but "the availability of flights in the future is unpredictable and depends on the overall security situation," the department said in a statement.
Before Tuareg and Islamic rebels took control of northern Mali, it had been hailed as a shining example of African democracy, having experienced more than 20 years of democratic government. The impoverished country now has no access to the sea and is heavily dependent on foreign aid.
"The conclusion of this convention should be accepted by everyone," the junta's Sanogo said Tuesday, "in order to put a stop to internal political considerations and deal with the major challenge rapidly, meaning the challenge of the security situation in the north and the integrity of our national territory."
Amnesty International has raised concerns about the safety of civilians in northern Mali, citing reports of violence and looting.
The Tuareg, who seek a separate homeland in northern Mali, announced over the weekend that they had seized control of the northern regional capitals of Timbuktu and Gao, a major blow to the military government. Both towns are hundreds of miles north of Bamako.
"The armed groups who seized these towns in the last three days must ensure human rights abuses do not occur, and where they do, they must take action and remove anyone implicated from their ranks," Gaetan Mootoo, Amnesty's West Africa researcher, said in a statement on the organization's website.
The Islamist group Ansar Dine seized control of Timbuktu after the military stepped down Monday, said Yehye Tandina, a broadcaster in the city.
The streets of Timbuktu were quiet Tuesday, though the city was cut off from the rest of the world; shops and banks had been looted. "We are surviving on hope," Tandina said. "In reality, there is nothing in Timbuktu."
Military officers led by Sanogo seized power on March 22, overthrowing President Toure. The junta said Toure had failed to properly equip soldiers battling the growing Tuareg insurgency.
Moussa Ag Assarid, a spokesman for the main Tuareg rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, has said the group now "controls all of northern Mali."
"We are proud and ready to declare our homeland free from the south," he said. "Now the MLNA wants a nation."
Amnesty said it had received reports from witnesses in Gao of armed men looting homes and a hospital.
"The looting must be halted to ensure that the civilian population can safely go about their lives," said Amnesty's Mootoo.
In another northern city, Kidal, residents were fleeing their homes, Amnesty reported. According to the organization, more than 200,000 people had fled the north of Mali since the Tuareg uprising began in January.