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Three West African junta-led states quit ECOWAS regional block

By Boureima Balima and Tiemoko Diallo

NIAMEY/BAMAKO (Reuters) -Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, three West African states led by the military, said on Sunday they are immediately leaving the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional economic bloc that has been urging them to return to democratic rule.

The decision by the three, announced in a simultaneous joint statement on their national television channels, is a blow to the bloc's regional integration efforts after it suspended the three following coups.

The move could further weaken ECOWAS which has struggled to contain a democratic retreat in the West Africa region.

In response to the withdrawal ECOWAS said it is yet to receive any formal notification about the withdrawal and declined further comment.

The bloc had previously said it does not recognise the military-led governments, vowing that coups would no longer be tolerated after the military takeovers in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea and an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau.

Since the coups - and despite sanctions, negotiations and threats of military intervention - the military leaders have failed to provide a clear timetable for a return to constitutional rule.

Instead, they have hardened their rhetoric against the bloc and accused it of being influenced by external powers. The three have also cut military and other ties with former colonial master France, and turned to Russia for security support.

EXISTENTIAL FIGHT

The military leaders have argued they want to restore security before organising elections, as the three Sahel nations struggle contain insurgencies linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.

"After 49 years, the valiant peoples of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger regretfully and with great disappointment observe that the (ECOWAS) organization has drifted from the ideals of its founding fathers and the spirit of Pan-Africanism," Colonel Amadou Abdramane, Niger junta spokesman, said in the statement.

"The organization notably failed to assist these states in their existential fight against terrorism and insecurity," Abdramane added.

Bakary Sambe, regional director of the Timbuktu Institute think tank, said there were clear signs that the junta-led states were moving towards a split from the bloc, as they strengthen ties between themselves and created a new alliance.

It is unclear for now how the decision by the landlocked junta states, will impact the 15-member regional bloc where goods and citizens move freely.

According to the bloc's treaty, member states wishing to withdraw must give a written one-year notice. It is unclear for now if the three states have done so. The treaty say they must continue to abide by its provisions during the year-long period.

The three are also members of the eight-nation West African Monetary Union (UEMOA) which uses the West Africa CFA franc currency pegged to the Euro.

The monetary union, following decisions by ECOWAS leaders after the coups in Mali and Niger, had cut off their access to the regional financial market, and the regional central bank. It later restored Mali's access but Niger remains suspended.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo, Boureima Balima, Felix Onuah and MacDonald Dzirutwe; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by William Maclean and David Holmes)