By Adama Diarra
BAMAKO (Reuters) - The leader of Mali's March 22 coup condemned the beating up of the interim president by pro-putchist demonstrators and called on Tuesday for a peaceful transition of power in the West African country.
Caretaker President Dioncounda Traore suffered minor head injuries when protesters stormed his palace, the latest setback for efforts to stabilize Mali after the coup and deal with a subsequent revolt by northern separatists and Islamists.
Underscoring the depth of Mali's crisis, a senior rebel official said separatist MNLA rebels and Islamist group Ansar Dine, who are in joint control over the north, could finalize a deal over the future of the zone in days.
The coup and subsequent political uncertainty in Bamako have muddied international efforts to tackle the security void in the north, where groups linked to al Qaeda are now free to roam.
Protesters occupied the presidential palace for several hours during a street demonstration in the capital Bamako called by local politicians who want the putschists to return to power and who accuse Traore of being a member of a self-serving political elite responsible for decades of misrule.
But coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, who at the weekend agreed with the ECOWAS West African regional bloc to allow Traore to preside over a one-year transition to full civilian rule, distanced himself and his CNRDRE grouping from the pro-coup movement.
"The CNRDRE firmly condemns these acts of violence ... The CNRDRE calls on the Malian people to contain themselves and respect all efforts taken towards an end of the crisis and a peaceful transition," he said in a written statement.
As part of the accord extending Traore's mandate, Sanogo won status and privileges normally accorded former heads of state, including a pension for life and other perks.
The fact that unarmed protesters, mostly dressed in jeans and t-shirts, were able to occupy the palace compound despite the presence of security forces raised questions over whether they had tacit support from sections of the military.
"ECOWAS will make the necessary inquiries to establish who ordered and carried out this reprehensible attack and apply the appropriate sanctions," the 15-state body said in a statement.
Past ECOWAS statements have explicitly warned Sanogo and other coup leaders they would face foreign asset freezes and travel bans if they tried to block the transition process.
GOVERNMENT FOR NORTH
Amid the chaotic scenes in the capital, rebel officials said the MNLA, which wants to create an independent desert state, and Ansar Dine, which seeks to impose Islamic law across Mali, were nearing a deal over the future government of the north.
"I am hopeful we will have an agreement in a day or two," said a source close to the talks, who asked not to be named.
Observers said the thousands-strong street protest in Bamako which preceded the palace invasion had been signaled for days by local politicians such as youth leader Oumar Mariko, who hailed the coup as ushering in an Arab Spring-style revolution.
The FDR coalition of anti-coup parties said the attack on the president had been orchestrated.
"This unspeakable violence is the result of a weeks-long campaign of hate and incitement to crime carried out on certain private radio stations by political and civil society players."
Traore's party ADEMA, which holds a majority of seats in Mali national assembly, demanded that Traore's security be guaranteed, adding his departure would damage the transition.
The streets of the capital Bamako were calm on Tuesday following heavy downpours, while some banks were shut.
It was not clear when Traore, a former parliament speaker who has held various cabinet positions, would return to the palace, around which security forces were posted.
(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo, Mark John in Dakar, Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott; Writing by Mark John and David Lewis; Editing by Rosalind Russell)