BAMAKO, Mali — Mali's president penned a resignation letter from his hiding place and sent an emissary to deliver it to the country's new leaders Sunday after he was forced underground in last month's coup, an official said.
The move paves the way for Mali to name a new interim president, the next step in the nation's return to democratic rule. President Amadou Toumani Toure was just months from finishing his last term, when soldiers on March 21 stormed the presidential palace, sending Toure into hiding and canceling a democratic tradition stretching back for more than two decades.
In a surprise turnaround Friday, the junior officers who seized power last month were pressured into stepping down. Mali's neighbors had imposed crippling financial sanctions, including the closing of the nation's borders.
The accord signed by the leader of the March 21 coup in the presence of representatives from Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso called for the application of Article 36 of Mali's constitution. The article states that in the event the president is unable to serve out his term, the head of the national assembly becomes interim president for a transitional period, before new elections can be held.
For that article to be able to be applied properly, however, Mali's constitutional court needed to confirm that the president cannot carry out his term. Toure gave an interview to French radio two weeks ago, saying he is in hiding in Bamako. His resignation letter will allow the court to declare the vacancy of power, paving the way for the head of the national assembly, Dioncounda Traore, to become interim president, as called for in the constitution.
"Yes, he sent in his resignation just now. It was by letter," said Issa Togo, the chief of staff of the assembly president.
The soldiers who grabbed power 17 days ago claimed they did so because of President Toure's mishandling of a rebellion in the north, which began in January. The ethnic Tuareg rebels had succeeded in taking a dozen small towns and in inflicting large casualties on Mali's ill-equipped army.
The confusion caused by the coup in the faraway capital gave them the opening they needed to take the three largest towns in the north — Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu — which all fell last weekend.
The rebel advance has plunged Mali into crisis. The fighters are divided between a secular group claiming independence, and an Islamist faction that wants to impose Shariah law in Mali's moderate north. Already, women in the three cities have been forbidden to go out without veils.
It's unclear which of the factions has the upper hand, but increasingly it appears that Ansar Dine, the Islamist group, has greater sway. On Sunday, residents attempting to flee Gao said they saw Islamist fighters cut the throat of a gunman, who is assumed to belong to the secular rebel group.
Dramane Maiga, a transport company employee, said a bus loaded with fleeing residents was driven off the road at the exit to Gao by Tuareg fighters. Maiga said the fighters were assumed to belong to the secular faction, known as the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA.
Maiga said the Islamists had handed out a hotline number and encouraged residents to call if they were in trouble, apparently in an effort to instill confidence in the local population. He said that as soon as the bus was driven off the road, people began calling the number, and the Islamists arrived 30 minutes later.
Maiga said that he saw the Islamists cut the throat of one of the Tuareg fighters, while shouting "Allah Akbar," or "God is Great," in Arabic.