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Crisis-hit Mali swears in transitional president

Marking an end to a brief period of military rule, parliamentary speaker Dioncounda Traoré was sworn in as Mali's interim president on Thursday. He faces a number of challenges in steering the country toward reunification.

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Three weeks after a military coup triggered a series of crises in Mali that cut the West African nation in two, Mali's new interim president was sworn into office Thursday, marking the country's return to civilian rule.

Dioncounda Traoré, who heads the country's National Assembly, took the oath of office Thursday at a brief ceremony in the Malian capital of Bamako. Mali's “classe politique” - or political class - along with a number of diplomats, especially representatives of the 15 countries that comprise the West African regional ECOWAS bloc attended the event.

Thursday's investiture ceremony was the result of intense negotiations by ECOWAS diplomats to return the impoverished, crisis-hit country to civilian rule following the March 22 military coup that ousted democratically-elected president Amadou Toumani Touré.

Under the terms of the agreement governed by the Malian constitution, Traoré will head a unity government until elections are held within 40 days.

This is an enormous challenge for a country where three-quarters of its vast terrain is controlled by a Tuareg rebel group in an uneasy alliance with various Islamist parties, some of them linked to al Qaeda's North African branch, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The northern Malian regions of Tessalit, Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu slipped from government control when the rebels and Islamist militants exploited the power vacuum in Bamako after the March 22 coup to seize a region larger than France.

Just minutes after he was sworn in by Mali's Supreme Court President Nouhoum Tapily, Traoré began his acceptance speech, by reminding Malians about the dire security situation in the north.

“Tessalit, Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu occupied, Mali, the country of peace, tolerance and dialogue is cut in two. Our population in the north is subjected to all sorts of atrocities, our secular, democratic Republic threatened,” he began before vowing to do everything in his power to return unity to this divided country.

Wearing the country's yellow presidential sash over a dark suit, Traoré called on the rebels to immediately halt human rights abuses in the north and to quit - “immediately and peacefully” - all the areas they have occupied.

Military coup chief the most popular man in the room

While addressing the situation in the north is Traoré's top priority, the challenges of negotiating a settlement - at least with some of the more hardline, al Qaeda-linked Islamist groups - are daunting.

Although ECOWAS has been preparing a military force of up to 3,000 troops, some countries are jittery about committing troops without a clearly defined mission, while others question whether the West African regional bloc has the technical and logistical capabilities to mount a desert campaign in Mali's difficult northern terrain.

The Malian military, on the other hand, is a chronically unprofessional and ill-equipped force. The stated cause of the March 22 coup was the lack of support and reinforcement for Malian troops fighting the northern rebellion earlier this year after Tuareg fighters returned from Libya following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. In this regard, the coup appeared to fail when rebels and Islamists militants seized the north.

In Mali today, March 22 coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo remains a popular figure as public anger against Mali's politicians has been high in this impoverished West African nation.

At the swearing in ceremony on Thursday, the audience greeted the coup leader with raucous cheers and a standing ovation as he took the podium to congratulate the newly-inaugurated president.

Observers have worried about the power of the military. Speaking to FRANCE 24 shortly after Traoré assumed office, former Malian prime minister, Soumana Sako, said he could not forecast the military's willingness to allow the democratic process to proceed.

“I do not have a crystal ball to theorize on how the military will act,” said Sako. “But there must be an engagement and our goal is to reach out to our brothers in the military to work together with our larger Malian family.”

All eyes on new cabinet

Senior Malian politicians as well as international observers also wonder if Traoré will be able to oversee elections in this crisis-hit country within 40 days.

“It's not certain that the elections will take place within 40 days,” former Malian education minister, Moustapha Dieko, told FRANCE 24 shortly after the inauguration. “We are a country at war, the unity of the nation is at stake. The most important thing now is to guarantee that the right measures are taken to make sure the country follows the electoral process.”

Traoré’s short term goals should include appointing a prime minister and a cabinet, a process that has involved intense negotiations and set Mali's “classe politique” rumour mills churning.

While former prime minister Sako has been cited as a possible nominee, he deflected FRANCE 24's questions about whether he would accept a prime ministerial position – should it be offered to him.

“I never ask myself these questions,” he said while noting that he had no information about who is being offered the post. “What is at stake is not personal careers or ambitions. What is important is the need to reconstitute our democracy and offer a new hope and a new vision to our people.”

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