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Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure delivers a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in this September 7, 2010 file photo. (JEAN-MARC LOOS/REUTERS/JEAN-MARC LOOS/REUTERS)
Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure delivers a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in this September 7, 2010 file photo. (JEAN-MARC LOOS/REUTERS/JEAN-MARC LOOS/REUTERS)

Mali's President steps down, soldiers agree to restore civilian rule Add to ...

Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Touré resigned on Sunday, paving the way for the soldiers who ousted him in a coup to stick by a deal to restore civilian rule and hand power to the president of the National Assembly.

Neighbouring states meeting to discuss turmoil in Mali’s north, a major reason for the military’s ousting of Mr. Toure, said they would seek dialogue with the northern rebels, a mix of Tuareg separatists and Islamists with links to al-Qaeda, but warned they would consider military intervention if it failed.

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The twin crises – a coup in the capital that led to a rebel seizure of vast tracts of the north – have threatened Mali’s previous reputation for democracy and widened a security void that regional and Western nations fear will exacerbate regional instability, terrorism and smuggling.

Mali has been a focus of intense Canadian aid and attention in Africa, and received both military support and $110-million in aid annually over the last few years.

Joseph Lavoie, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, said Sunday that Canada had been “on track to deliver record assistance” to Mali before the coup. “Canada is very concerned about the situation in northern Mali,” Mr. Lavoie added in an e-mail. “The area cannot become a haven for terrorists. We will work with a democratic Mali, and other partners, to that end.”

Already bracing for a food crisis that is set to hit millions across the Sahel this year, over 200,000 civilians have fled their homes in northern Mali and many are short of food and health care as the rebel push has swept with it looting.

In a brief statement on his resignation, Mr. Toure said: “I am doing it without any pressure, I am doing it in good faith and most of all for the love that I have for this country.” He has been in hiding since his presidential palace was attacked by mutinous soldiers.

Djibril Bassole, Burkina Faso’s foreign minister and a leading mediator for West Africa’s ECOWAS bloc, confirmed the resignation and said the appropriate steps would be taken.

After three days of negotiations and growing international pressure to step down, Mali’s junta announced late on Friday it would begin a handover of power in return for an amnesty from prosecution and the lifting of trade and other sanctions.

According to the agreement signed with mediators, the junta must now make way for a unity government with Mali’s parliament speaker Diouncounda Traore as interim president.

It is not clear when elections, which had been due on April 29, can be held as the north is increasingly lawless and in the hands of separatist Tuareg-led MNLA rebels and Islamist fighters seeking to impose sharia, Islamic law, across Mali.

A resident in Gao, one of the three northern towns seized, said a Tuareg gunman had his throat slit on Sunday by Islamist gunmen for trying to rob a bus.

To the south, eyewitnesses said a truck loaded with 100 people fleeing the town crashed on Saturday, killing about 10.

Most aid groups have fled the area but a grouping of northerners residing in the south met on Sunday and said they planned to dispatch aid up north.

Frustrations over Mr. Toure’s handling of the north are at the heart of Mali’s crisis, with soldiers complaining that they were ill-equipped to fight rebels bolstered by guns and fighters returning from Libya’s war last year.

Mali’s neighbours have also long complained that Mr. Toure did not do enough to strengthen his grip on Mali’s north.

After a day of security meetings, Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s foreign minister, said Mali’s northern neighbours expected Bamako to shoulder its burden of responsibility for security in the region, an implicit dig at perceived weakness under Mr. Toure.

Mr. Bazoum said dialogue would be sought but force remained an option: “For those (groups in the north) who do not want to organize or take part in dialogue, we are convinced that what needs to be done (...) is to defeat them and to do so by the appropriate means,” he said.

Mauritania, Algeria, Niger and Mali had set up a joint military command headquarters before the lightning rebel push, although it had struggled to coordinate efforts against what they see as an Islamist threat in the Sahara.

The separatist MNLA have declared an independent state of “Azawad” but they do not have any international backing or the control over large chunks of areas they claim, a zone the size of France in Mali’s desert north.

They have an uneasy relationship with Ansar Dine, another Tuareg-led group that swept south but wants to impose sharia. Experts say Ansar Dine has links with al-Qaeda’s regional wing, AQIM, which has made millions of dollars from ransom payments for kidnapped Westerners.

Underscoring deepening confusion in the area, seven Algerian diplomats were kidnapped in Gao last week.

Algeria’s El Watan newspaper reported on its website on Sunday that the diplomats had been freed, but Algerian officials in Nouakchott were unable to confirm that.

With a report from Barrie McKenna

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