BAMAKO Mali's coup leader said on Saturday the junta would hand power to civilians within days in a deal under which neighboring nations agreed to lift sanctions and help tackle Tuareg rebels who have seized much of the north.
The March 22 coup by soldiers angry at ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure's handling of a two-month-old rebellion backfired, emboldening the Tuareg nomads to seize the northern half of Mali and declare an independent state there.
After three days of negotiations and growing international pressure to step down, Mali's junta announced late on Friday it would begin a power handover in return for an amnesty from prosecution and the lifting of trade and other sanctions.
"It is the will of the committee to quickly move towards the transition," coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo said at the barracks outside the capital Bamako which has been the headquarters of his two-week-old rule.
"In the next few days you will see a prime minister and a government in place," Sanogo, sitting in an armchair in the middle of his cramped office, said in an interview with Reuters, France's i-tele and the Spanish-language channel Telesur.
A five-page accord agreed by Sanogo and the 15-state West African bloc ECOWAS for a return to constitutional order did not specify when the handover would start.
The agreement calls for Toure, who is still in hiding, to formally resign. Sanogo's junta must then make way for a unity government with Mali's parliament speaker Diouncounda Traore as interim president.
Elections would follow as soon as allowed by the widespread lack of security in the north, now mostly overrun by Tuaregs accompanied by groups of Islamists with links to al Qaeda.
In an interview with Burkina Faso state radio before he flew back to Mali on Saturday, Traore said the top priority was to restore order to Mali's state institutions after the coup and to deal with "this problem of the north".
"Our goal is the territorial integrity of Mali and the pursuit of our democratic project," Traore said of a state which had been viewed as one of the region's more stable democracies. He made no comment to reporters as he arrived in Bamako later.
RELIEF ON STREETS OF BAMAKO
Sanogo, dressed in battle fatigues and showing signs of tiredness, called on ECOWAS countries to help the Malian army with transport and logistics rather than send ground troops as they are discussing.
"The Malian army still needs help precisely on logistics and air support but not ground troops to help us solve the security problem in northern Mali," he said.
"We have to sit and talk. If they want to help us it should be according to our needs," added Sanogo, surrounded by aides and sitting beneath a large portrait of himself on the wall.
The African Union, ECOWAS and foreign capitals from Paris to Washington all dismissed Friday's declaration by the Tuareg-led MNLA rebels of the independent state of "Azawad", a desert region bigger than France in Mali's north.
Neighbors fear secession would encourage such movements in their own countries, while the presence of Islamists among the rebels has raised fears of the emergence of a rogue state with echoes of Taliban-era Afghanistan which sheltered al Qaeda.
Residents in northern cities such as the ancient trading post of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao have said the local Islamist Ansar Dine group has banned Western dress and music. There have been sightings of senior members of the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group's North African branch.
ECOWAS nations such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast have asked military planners to prepare for an intervention force of up to 3,000 troops with a mandate to secure Mali's return to constitutional order and halt any further rebel advances.
The French Foreign Ministry on Saturday welcomed the accord to hand power back to civilians in Bamako and repeated its offer to provide transport and other logistics for the force.
The ex-colonial power said there can be no purely military solution to the rebellion and says some of the year-old grievances of the fairer-skinned Tuaregs against the darker-skinned elite that has dominated Bamako politics are justified.
It is not yet clear whether Tuaregs could come away with an autonomy deal falling short of full independence or whether Mali's neighbors and future leaders will first insist on fully restoring the status quo before the rebel gains.
ECOWAS announced on Saturday the formal lifting of sanctions which were imposed last week and had prompted panic buying at gas stations and queues at banks. There was relief on the streets of Bamako, where Malians hoped stability could return.
"We are optimistic it is going to be handled well because the leaders of all of the political parties will be involved," Bamako local Fomba Yefing said at a small rally of women and children wielding banners with slogans such as "All we want is peace".
"It is not about who is in charge, it is about doing things by the constitution," she added.