Malian strongman Colonel Assimi Goita returned home on Monday after West African leaders condemned a second coup that cemented his grip on power, calling on him to name a new prime minister but stopping short of reimposing sanctions.
At a crisis summit in Ghana on Sunday, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) decided to suspend Mali from the 15-nation bloc and urged Goita to appoint a new civilian premier and forge a new "inclusive government".
But the leaders stopped short of hitting the country with sanctions to back this demand -- a move that they had adopted after a first coup last August.
In a tweet, J. Peter Pham, a former US envoy to the Sahel, said the summit communique "offers lip service by condemning what it calls a coup d'etat in #Mali & suspending the country."
"But what it really did was acquiesce to (a) fait accompli, omitting entirely the sanctions it had imposed last year."
Dozens of supporters greeted Goita on his arrival, an AFP journalist saw.
"Now the transition can start," said one of them, student Alpha Cisse.
Goita last August led army officers who overthrew elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, following mass protests over perceived corruption and a bloody jihadist insurgency.
After the takeover, the military agreed to appoint civilians as interim president and prime minister under the pressure of ECOWAS trade and financial sanctions.
But in a move that provoked diplomatic uproar, soldiers last week detained transitional president Bah Ndaw and prime minister Moctar Ouane, releasing them on Thursday while saying that they had resigned.
Mali's constitutional court completed Goita's rise to full power on Friday by naming him transitional president.
- No sanctions -
The United States and Mali's former colonial master France had both threatened sanctions in response to the second coup.
But ECOWAS refrained from reimposing sanctions, nor did it call for the reinstatement of transitional president Bah Ndaw.
It still pushed for Mali to transition to civilian rule under a previously agreed timetable.
The bloc suspended Mali from ECOWAS until February 2022, "when they are supposed to hand over to a democratically elected government," Ghana's Foreign Minister Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey said after the meeting.
Goita's judicial adviser Youssouf Coulibaly told AFP that the military regime "will do everything to meet" the deadline for the civilian transition -- while saying that they might be too close.
"I think that objectively the nine months (until February 2022) are not enough for all the work we have to achieve stable and credible elections," Coulibaly said.
In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron said that ECOWAS' conditions for a transition to civilian rule were "the minimum".
"Neither France nor its partners has any business engaging in Mali if ECOWAS' demands are not respected," he added after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
- Radical Islamism -
France has some 5,100 troops deployed across Africa's arid Sahel region as part of its anti-jihadist force Barkhane, while smaller German contingents participate in the UN MINUSMA peacekeeping mission and an EU mission to train Malian soldiers.
Paris first intervened in Mali in 2013 at the request of the government, to help quell a jihadist rebellion that broke out the previous year.
The brutal insurgency is still raging in the vast nation of 19 million people, and has spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Macron had said in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche newspaper published Sunday that Paris "could not stay by the side of a country where there is no longer democratic legitimacy or a transition".
Macron also warned that France would withdraw its troops from Mali should the country lurch towards radical Islamism under Goita's leadership.
Choguel Maiga, an opposition leader who is tipped to become the new prime minister, has close ties with the influential imam Mahmoud Dicko.
Both men, as well as most of Mali's political elite, favour dialogue with Mali's jihadists in order to stem the bloodshed in the country -- a policy long opposed by Paris.