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Three west African states ruled by military juntas said they were leaving a key regional economic bloc in response to sanctions and pressure to hold democratic elections, in a sign of rising tensions in the region.

Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger said in a joint statement that they were leaving the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) with immediate effect, marking a significant deterioration of relations between the 15 states that until now formed the bloc.

Following recent coups, Ecowas had already suspended the three nations from the union, which promotes economic integration and freedom of movement.

The group imposed sanctions on Niger after its democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum was removed from office in a coup in July, measures that included the closure of all air and land borders, the freezing of state assets and the prevention of financial transactions with other institutions in the bloc.

The sanctions cut Niger off from the two countries from which it imports most of its food and other essentials — Benin and Nigeria — leading to skyrocketing food prices in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Mali has been under the rule of its current military junta since coups in 2020 and 2021, while a junta led by army captain Ibrahim Traoré has been in power in Burkina Faso since October 2022.

The three countries claimed the Ecowas sanctions were “inhumane and irresponsible” and a “violation” of the bloc’s own rules. They also said the bloc was “under the influence of foreign powers”, arguing it had become a “threat” to its members.

An Ecowas spokesperson said on Sunday it had not received any “direct formal notification” that the three nations were exiting the bloc.

France and the US have condemned the coups, with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been forced to withdraw troops from all three countries, saying in September that he was “very worried” about the region.

Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali have deepened ties since Bazoum was removed from office. He was the west’s last reliable ally in the Sahel, a semi-arid strip south of the Sahara where Russia has begun to exert its influence.

All three countries face significant levels of insecurity caused by al-Qaeda and Isis-linked Islamist insurgents, which have wreaked havoc for more than a decade, killing thousands and leaving millions more displaced.

They formed the Alliance of Sahel States in September with the stated aim of providing mutual protection in the face of external aggression or rebellion from within. It was set up in part as a retaliation against Ecowas’s threat of military action against Niger last year if Bazoum, who remains in detention, was not reinstated as president.

Nigeria’s foreign minister Yusuf Tuggar told the FT in an interview last week that the sanctions on Niger would only be lifted if Bazoum and his allies were released.

Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group is active in Mali and Russian soldiers were deployed to Burkina Faso last week. Moscow also reopened its embassy in the Burkinabé capital Ouagadougou for the first time in three decades.

The move to quit Ecowas came after a delegation from the economic bloc failed to make it to Niger on Thursday for mediation talks due to a faulty aircraft, leading the junta’s prime minister to criticise the bloc for its “bad faith”.