West Africa's regional bloc appealed for unity on Thursday after emergency talks on the withdrawal of three coup-hit countries from the group.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) extraordinary session also addressed President Macky Sall's decision to delay elections in Senegal, a major concern for the region that came just a week after Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger declared their departure.
The chairman of the ECOWAS Mediation and Security Council urged the three countries not to leave, warning their exit would "bring more hardship and do more harm to common citizens".
"We are stronger together as a community," Yusuf Maitama Tuggar said as West African foreign and defence ministers attended the council meeting in Nigeria's capital Abuja.
Senegal's ministers attended, but representatives for Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Guinea, all suspended from ECOWAS following coups, were not present.
ECOWAS Commission president Omar Alieu Touray also urged the bloc to remain united, saying "if there is a time for ECOWAS to stay together, this is the time".
Council members left to hold private talks before they returned more than six hours later and ended the session without providing a clear statement on what measures -- if any -- they would take.
Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger announced their joint withdrawal from ECOWAS last month, worsening a diplomatic headache for the bloc, which up until then had 15 members.
The three have said they intend to leave immediately, despite ECOWAS's requirement that countries wait a year before quitting.
Benin's President Patrice Talon said he was "saddened" by their choice to leave.
"The decision they have taken penalises the people" of the countries concerned, he said at a separate press conference in Benin on Thursday.
Crisis in Senegal
Touray also called recent turmoil in Senegal a further "worrying development".
The country plunged into its worst political crisis in decades this weekend when Sall postponed the February 25 vote to December just hours before campaigning was set to begin.
Lawmakers voted almost unanimously in favour of the delay on Monday, but only after security forces stormed the chamber and removed some opposition members, who were unable to vote.
Observers expressed concern at events in one of ECOWAS's most influential and stable members, raising fears of knock-on effects in the region.
President Macky Sall announced he was postponing the February 25 vote just hours before campaigning was set to begin. File picture. By Amanuel Sileshi (AFP)
ECOWAS, the United States and European Union have urged Senegal to return to its election timetable, but critics have questioned the regional bloc's sway over increasingly defiant member states.
In a statement Tuesday, ECOWAS cautioned Senegal against jeopardising "peace and stability" during difficult times for West Africa -- but it was unclear what the bloc would do if Sall defied its warning.
The turmoil has also brought the almost 50-year-old bloc's broader role into doubt -- especially after its warning of military intervention in Niger last year fizzled out with no sign the country's toppled president is closer to being restored.
With its reputation at stake, ECOWAS's handling of the latest political upheaval is being closely watched.
The bloc can impose trade sanctions, as it has against Mali and Niger following their coups.
But the sanctions have hit citizens hard and military regimes remain in place.
ECOWAS cautioned Senegal against jeopardising 'peace and stability'. By John Wessels (AFP)
Experts also say that while Senegal may be playing with fire, it is still a long way off the stage where ECOWAS is likely to impose financial penalties.
Touray told AFP ministers at the meeting in Abuja had not discussed sanctioning Senegal.