Mali's future interim president meets coup leader

Mali's coup leader held talks on when he would hand over power to allow the return of democratic rule in the troubled west African nation, now half controlled by Islamists and rebels.

The constitutional court was expected to expedite the transfer of power on Tuesday by officially registering the resignation of Mali's president, paving the way for the current parliament speaker to be sworn in effectively ending the putsch, a source close to the court said.

The UN Security Council has expressed deep concern at the growing "terrorist threat" in Mali where Al-Qaeda militants have joined rebels to take advantage of the military coup to grab territory.

The council particularly condemned the kidnapping of seven Algerian diplomats in one northern Mali city by an Al-Qaeda splinter group.

"The members of the Security Council express deep concern at the increased terrorist threat in the north of Mali due to the presence among the rebels of members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and extremist elements," said a statement released by the 15-nation body.

Army Captain Amadou Sanogo, who seized power with other soldiers on March 22, held talks Monday with the speaker Dioncounda Traore, who is set to become Mali's interim president and oversee the transition back to constitutional rule.

Traore met Sanogo in the presence of international mediators for about an hour at a military camp near the capital Bamako.

The March coup set off a sequence of events that saw the northern desert half of the vast and deeply impoverished nation fall to Tuareg rebels and their Islamist allies, triggering a major humanitarian crisis.

Sanogo told reporters the encounter "went well", adding that more information would be released soon.

"We established a framework" of focus points, said Ivory Coast's African Integration Minister Adama Bictogo who, along with Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole, is acting as mediator.

"No-one lost anything and no-one won anything," he added.

The meeting came the day after Amadou Toumani Toure, who was ousted in the coup, formally resigned Mali's presidency under the deal which also saw the lifting of sanctions that had been imposed by west African states.

Under the transition deal, Toure's departure means Sanogo must prepare to step down and allow for Traore to be sworn in as interim president, which could happen on Tuesday, a source at the constitutional court said. There was no official confirmation of the date or timing.

Traore will be tasked with organising elections, if possible within 40 days.

Transitional authorities must address the situation in the north, which since the coup has been overrun by Tuareg rebels, outlaws and Islamic extremists who exploited the political and military disarray in Bamako.

An interim prime minister will also be appointed to head "a government of national unity", according to the terms of the deal which the West African bloc ECOWAS forced on Mali's military rulers in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

A Burkina Faso official said it was hoped the first cabinet meeting could be held before Friday.

Meanwhile the humanitarian crisis in the north, cut off from the rest of the world, was growing worse, witnesses and non-governmental organisations warned.

"The situation in the three northern regions is dramatic. There are no more hospitals and hunger is growing.... The international community must intervene," member of parliament Abdou Sidibe told AFP.

On the military front, ECOWAS is threatening to intervene to put down the northern rebellion by the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), which is said to comprise some 500 fighters, nearly all of them Arabs from the Timbuktu region.

The MNLA led by Tuareg rebels last week proclaimed the independence of the northern region they call Azawad, a move rejected by the international community as well as by the Islamist Ansar Dine, which controls some towns.

And an Al-Qaeda dissident group on Sunday claimed it was behind the kidnap of seven Algerian diplomats Thursday in the northern town of Gao.

The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) said it had seized the diplomats after rebels overran Gao, along with Kidal and the legendary city of Timbuktu.

MUJAO is said to have broken off from the main group, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in order to spread jihad to west Africa rather than confine itself just to the Maghreb or Sahel regions.

A regional deputy and a security source told AFP late Monday that some 100 members of Nigeria's Islamist Boko Haram sect were among Islamists controlling Gao.

"There are a good 100 Boko Haram fighters in Gao," said Abu Sidibe, a regional deputy. "They're not hiding."

Also in Gao a driver for a bus company said armed Islamists had slit the throat of a member of a band of thieves that held up his bus outside the city.

A Gao police officer confirmed the report, saying "the Islamists slit the throat of a robber and detained five accomplices who attacked a public transport bus."

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