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Mali's coup leaders agree to step down to gain help against rebels


Mali's coup leader, Amadou Sanogo, said yesterday that the junta would hand power to an interim government within days. Neighbouring nations, in return, will end sanctions and help tackling rebels who have seized much of the north.

The 22 March 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.

Mali's neighbours, who have criticised the coup, said the military must step down before they will act against the rebels. Late on Friday, the junta announced it had agreed to begin a power handover in return for the lifting of trade and other sanctions.

The agreement calls for Mr Toure, who is still in hiding, to formally resign. The junta must then make way for a unity government with Mali's parliament speaker Dioncounda Traoré as interim president. Elections would follow as soon as allowed by the security situation in the north, now mostly overrun by Tuaregs accompanied by Islamists with links to al-Qa'ida.

The declaration of the state of "Azawad", a desert region larger than France, has been widely dismissed. Neighbours fear secession would encourage similar movements in their countries, while the presence of Islamists has raised fears of a rogue state with echoes of Taliban-era Afghanistan.

Residents in northern cities such as Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao have said the Islamist Ansar Dine group has banned Western dress and report sightings of senior al-Qa'ida members. Nations such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast are drawing up plans for an intervention force of up to 3,000 troops to secure Mali's return to constitutional order.