- France welcomes a deal by coup leaders to restore power to a civilian government
- The parties agree to set up a transition process leading to a presidential election
- The announcement comes after rebels declare independence for territory in northern Mali
- The international community had imposed restrictions on Mali amid turmoil
France on Saturday welcomed an agreement between military coup leaders in Mali and a regional bloc that would return the country to democratic rule, two weeks after a coup plunged it into turmoil.
Mali state television announced late Friday that the leader of Mali's coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had signed up to the plan.
The parties agreed to set up a transition process leading to a presidential election, Sanogo said, in exchange for the end of trade and diplomatic sanctions.
A transitional prime minister will lead the transition "to manage the crisis in the north of Mali and to organize free, transparent and democratic elections in accordance with a road map," he said.
The announcement of a promised return to civilian rule came shortly after separatist rebels, who had captured large areas of Mali's vast Sahara region in the north of the country, declared independence for a region they call Azawad.
A French foreign ministry statement urged all parties to put the measures set out in the agreement into effect as soon as possible, especially those laying the groundwork for presidential elections.
The presidents of Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, both members of ECOWAS, will meet to discuss the next steps, the foreign ministry said.
Once a constitutional government is restored, France -- the former colonial power in Mali -- will resume military and civil cooperation with Mali, the statement said.
France will help the future government find a political solution to the problems in northern Mali, where the Tuareg rebels have gained control, it said. France also urged the rebel leaders to seek a political resolution.
Journalist Katarina Hoije, in the capital, Bamako, said the coup leaders had been left with little choice but to agree to the plan after coming under sustained pressure from ECOWAS and losing ground to rebel groups.
The rebels say they will continue to fight to preserve the territory they have gained, Hoije said, although it is unclear how much control they have on the ground.
The rebel declaration of independence was made in a statement posted online by the secretary general of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA).
The claim followed "more than 50 years of corruption and poor governance with the complicity of the army and the politicians, putting people's lives at risk in Azawad," the MNLA said.
In a statement, the African Union expressed its "total rejection" of the rebels' independence claim.
The African Union will do all it can to restore the authority of the government of Mali to its entire territory and "bring to an end the attacks being carried out by armed and terrorist groups in the northern part of the country," it said.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said the declaration of independence in northern Mali was meaningless if it was not recognized by African states.
The rebels had called a cease-fire Thursday, saying they had captured key territory in the Sahara region and achieved their military mission.
The Tuaregs, who consider Azawad to be the cradle of their nomadic civilization, launched an insurgency in January to achieve a separate homeland. The conflict has uprooted more than 200,000 people from their homes.
Buoyed by the chaos after last month's coup, the rebels swept through the north and wrested control of several strategic cities, including Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.
The rebels effectively split the West African nation in two, and northern areas remained volatile and tense, preventing aid agencies from accessing displaced people, the United Nations refugee agency said Thursday.
Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu experienced days of looting, abductions and chaos after they were occupied by armed groups.
The coup leaders had deposed the democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Toure because of his alleged inability to handle the Tuareg rebellion.