REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Mali's junta has agreed to step down in return for amnesty, after a coup that saw neighbors launch a blockade of the landlocked country and an ethnic Tuareg rebel militia seize the north.
The regional leadership group ECOWAS announced details of the deal late Friday, which will see the junta step down within days and the establishment of a transitional government of national unity.
The March 22 coup that toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure came just weeks before elections were scheduled. It was triggered by anger in the military over the government's failure to properly arm and equip the army to fight the Tuareg rebellion, which was launched in January.
The junta had hoped for international help to resist the rebels, but the opposite happened, with sanctions and a blockade. The rebels advanced swiftly, seizing key northern towns and taking control of half the impoverished country.
ECOWAS has put a force of 2,000 soldiers on standby, without indicating whether they would be given the task of trying to defeat the well-armed Tuareg rebels.
The announcement of the deal came a day after the Tuareg rebels declared an independent state, Azawad. No country has recognised the region's independence from Mali.
Under the transition plan, the country's parliamentary speaker, Dioncounda Traore, will be appointed as interim leader and will have 40 days to oversee elections. Traore fled to neighboring Burkino Faso when the coup took place.
Mali's constitution states that if the president is unable to carry out his duties, the speaker should take over until new elections can be held.
The leader of the coup, Amadou Sanogo, has indicated in the past that he and other members of the junta have no intention of running for office in elections.
Toure, the ousted president, has been in hiding since the coup but is reported to be safe.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Mali's parliamenty speaker, Dioncounda Traore, arrives at the Bamako airport from Burkina Faso on Saturday. He will become Mali's interim leader under a transition plan announced in the wake of a military coup. Credit: Issouf Sanogo / AFP/Getty Images