The leader of Mali's military junta, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, announces the agreement to step down from power. Photograph: Chine Nouvelle/Sipa/Rex Features
Mali's military junta has agreed to step down from power in a deal with other west African states, as the region's troops prepare for military action in the north of the country.
Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo – the junior officer who toppled Mali's civilian government on 21 March – made the announcement on Saturday morning, amidst an escalating security crisis in northern Mali which officials say threatens the entire region.
According to the agreed transition plan, military rulers will cede power to the parliamentary speaker, Diouncounda Traore, who, as interim president, will oversee a timetable for civilian elections.
The Observer has learned that following the agreement of the military junta to step down, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) is making final preparations to launch a military offensive in the north of Mali.
A senior Ecowas source said the resignation of the coup leaders was the final hurdle on the path to military action.
"The position of Ecowas is that there is no way we could deal with the mutiny in the north if the coup leaders did not leave," the source said. "Their resignation removes a major hurdle. We are now fine-tuning the contingency measures for intervention; it is very much on the cards."
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) made the announcement after capturing the key towns of Gao, Kidal and the world heritage site Timbuktu. But the move prompted immediate condemnation from the international community, and is hampering negotiation.
"The so-called independence of Azawad is off the table as far as Ecowas is concerned," the source said. "The territorial integrity of Mali is non-negotiable."
Negotiations are also being derailed by the close ties between the MNLA – a secularist group which has long fought for an independent homeland for the nomadic Tuareg ethnic group in the desert north of Mali – and a number of Islamic extremist groups which are heavily involved in the capture of northern towns.
Witnesses in rebel-held towns told the Observer that rebel checkpoints were flying flags symbolising Ansar Dine – the militant wing of the Tuareg insurgency, whose goal is the imposition of sharia law rather than the creation of an independent state – and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the north African branch of the terrorist network.
"We will negotiate with those who say their motives are political, but we will not negotiate with terrorist groups," said the Ecowas source. "The MNLA does not control the territories – there is Ansar Dine, Salafists, and other armed groups. It is like a group of armed robbers trying to create a zone of lawlessness — whilst that is the case we cannot negotiate. So our troops are preparing and we are mobilising."
The decision by Sanogo to step down from power in Bamako came after the coup was blamed for helping the rebels make significant gains amidst the political chaos.
Sanogo has said the main reason for seizing power was the army's frustration at the civilian government's inability to equip them to counter the Tuareg insurgency. He was reported to have been under intense pressure as situation worsened in the north.
The junta's stated aim, to help improve living conditions, was undermined by crippling sanctions imposed on the landlocked country by Ecowas after Sanogo missed a timetable for setting elections and a return to civilian rule. It has led to fuel shortages and panic-buying of staple goods.
Sanogo said he was stepping down due to "the exceptional circumstances that the country is going through, because of the institutional crisis and the armed rebellion in the north which have badly affected the functioning of the institutions of the republic, and because of the impossibility of organising elections in 40 days as set out under the constitution".
The declaration was welcomed by other African states. Burkina Faso's foreign minister, Djibrill Bassole, who stood beside Sanogo while he read the accord, said the countries bordering Mali had agreed to lift the sanctions.
Other foreign powers were preparing to assist Ecowas in a military intervention, according to the Observer's source.
"A number of countries have offered assistance, including the US and France. We are also mobilising the forces from the region to make contributions. The United Nations is planning to hold a fundraiser towards the end of the month for financial support."