West African leaders gathered in Bamako on Thursday in a fresh push to end an escalating political crisis in the fragile state of Mali.
In an exceptional one-day summit, the presidents of Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Niger have scheduled meetings with Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and leaders of a protest movement clamouring for his resignation.
The unrest deeply worries Mali's neighbours and allies, who fear a country bloodied by a jihadist insurgency could slide into chaos.
Presidents Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast and Macky Sall of Senegal were greeted at the airport by Keita, AFP journalists there saw. They were due to be followed by Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari, Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger and Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana.
A small group of demonstrators gathered outside the airport.
"We're here to demand IBK's resignation and ensure our comrades who have been killed are not forgotten," said Yaya Sylla, a young protester, using the acronym by which Mali's leader is known.
The June 5 Movement, named after the date when the protests began, has tapped into deep anger over Keita's perceived failure to tackle the dire economy, corruption and the eight-year jihadist revolt.
Malians are also incensed at the disputed outcome of long-delayed parliamentary elections in March and April that handed victory to Keita's party.
The summit comes on the heels of a five-day mediation mission from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which ended on Sunday without reconciling the two sides.
"It is this Thursday that the last act is played, the curtain will fall," said a Malian opposition politician who declined to be named.
The West African leaders will weigh on proposed solutions that have been crafted in behind-the-scenes talks between the president and opposition this week.
- Deepening crisis -
Keita, who came to power in 2013, has come under increasing pressure to end Mali's long-running jihadist conflict.
The poor nation of some 20 million people has been struggling to contain an insurgency that first emerged in the north in 2012 before spreading to its centre, as well as neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have died in the conflict, and hundreds of thousands of people have been driven from their homes.
But much of the current tension was sparked in April, when the constitutional court tossed out 31 results from the parliamentary elections, benefiting Keita's party and sparking protests.
Tensions then ratched up into a crisis on July 10 when an anti-Keita rally organised by the June 5 Movement turned violent.
Protesters blocked bridges in Bamako, stormed the premises of the state broadcaster and attacked the parliament.
Three days of clashes between protesters and security forces followed, leaving 11 dead and 158 injured in the worst political unrest Mali had seen in years.
Seeking a way out, ECOWAS mediators suggested forming a new unity government including opposition members and appointing new constitutional court judges who could potentially re-examine disputed election results.
But the June 5 Movement had already rejected any outcome that did not involve Keita's departure -- a demand opposition leaders have repeated for weeks.
- Possible compromise? -
Bespite the apparent failure of the ECOWAS mediators, the president's camp and opposition figures have quietly been talking all week and the June 5 Movement notably suspended protests ahead of the forthcoming Eid festival.
Brema Ely Dicko, a sociologist at the University of Bamako, suggested the opposition may be prepared to accept Prime Minister Boubou Cisse's resignation instead of Keita's.
"The M5-RFP is obliged to keep up the pressure to at least get something," he said, using the opposition coalition's formal acronym.
A European diplomat in Bamako who declined to be named said that the opposition may have overplayed its hand in demanding Keita's departure.
"Nobody wants to open the door to a period of political instability in Mali, which remains the epicentre of the Sahel security crisis," he added.
Recent unrest has pushed Mali to the brink
A protest in Mali capital's Bamako earlier this month, as the country's opposition demands the president resign
Mass protests have called for the resignation of Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who hosts five African leaders for talks on Thursday
A map of Mali