REUTERS - Mali's coup leader said on Saturday the junta would hand power to an interim government within days in a deal with neighbouring nations in return for an end to sanctions and help in tackling Malian 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 Tuareg nomads to seize the northern half of Mali and to declare an independent state there.
Mali's neighbours, which fiercely criticised the coup, said the military government must step down before they can act against the rebels. Late on Friday the junta announced it had agreed to begin a power handover in return for the lifting of tough trade and other sanctions.
"It is the will of the committee (junta) to quickly move towards the transition," coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo said at the military 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, a hitherto unknown U.S.-trained officer, 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.
Relief on streets of Bamako
Sanogo, dressed in battle fatigues and showing signs of tiredness after three days of intense negotiations, 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.
Neighbours 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.
FRANCE 24 reports from Mali
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 fair-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 neighbours and future leaders will first insist on fully restoring the status quo before the rebel gains.
There was relief on the streets of Bamako, where Malians hoped the power handover deal would bring a return to stability.
"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 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.