BAMAKO Thousands of demonstrators chanted pro-junta slogans in Mali's capital on Wednesday, protesting against the threats of foreign powers to use sanctions to force the leaders of last week's military coup to step down.
Deposed leader Amadou Toumani Toure, meanwhile, said in his first public comments since he was ousted that he was free and unharmed somewhere inside the West African nation, and called for a swift solution to the crisis.
The coup, seen as a setback to fragile democratic gains in Africa, was triggered by army anger at Toure's handling of a Tuareg rebellion in north Mali that in recent weeks has gained ground and inflicted losses on the army.
Regional neighbors said they were prepared to use sanctions and possible military force to dislodge Mali's new army leaders, urging them to hand back power to civilians, while former colonial power France has suspended aid.
"I want the international community to shut up. This is our revolution," said youth leader Oumar Diara at the rally - the largest in Bamako since Toure was ousted.
"We, the youth, can live without the international community. We have been living with our eyes closed but now we are waking up," he said.
Protesters chanted "Victory" and "Down with (French President Nicolas) Sarkozy, down with the Westerners" while an opposition politician and junta supporter, Oumar Mariko, called those pressing for sanctions on Mali "traitors". Banners read "Long live the army!" and "Dignity refound!".
Soldiers say they do not have the weapons or resources to halt Tuareg-led northern rebels.
"They (the coup leaders) should stay to resolve the problems in the north, corruption and education. That is more important than elections," said one protester, Khalifa Sogo, of the dissatisfaction felt by many Malians with Toure's rule.
Toure, who was planning to step down after elections in April, told French broadcaster RFI in an interview aired on Wednesday that he was free and unharmed somewhere in Mali.
"I am free in my country," he said in his first public comments since his removal last week.
"The most important thing is not about my well-being. I am two months to the end of my mandate. I think the most important thing today... is to find a way out of the crisis."
He added that he was supportive of proposals by the regional ECOWAS bloc to pressure the junta to step down.
Earlier, Mali's coup leaders announced a new constitution including a pledge to allow elections in which they would be barred from standing. The charter did not specify when the elections would be held.
"Anyone who was a member of the CNRDRE or the government cannot be a candidate in the elections," the new constitution, read out on state television, said of the junta - the National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDRE).
It added that civilians would be offered 15 out of 41 posts in a new transitional authority intended to prepare the path for elections. Captain Amadou Sanogo, a U.S-trained soldier who led the coup, will appoint an interim prime minister and government.
The new constitution guarantees the right to demonstrate or go on strike and grants immunity from prosecution for leaders of a coup in which rights groups say three people have been killed.
On Tuesday leaders of ECOWAS said they would send a delegation of six heads of state to confront the coup leaders this week and call for a return to constitutional order. They are now expected in Bamako on Thursday.
As well as Ivorian President and ECOWAS leader Alassane Ouattara, the delegation includes Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan, Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaore, Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Niger's Mahamadou Issoufou and Benin's Yayi Boni.
A coalition of political parties and civil society groups opposed to the junta have called a protest on Thursday to coincide with the arrival of the ECOWAS leaders.
One of the possible compromises put forward to resolve Mali's crisis has been that Toure be allowed to symbolically return to power so that he resigns and the constitution takes its course, with the president of the national assembly taking over until elections are held.
"Out of principle, he has to be reinstated, even if it is just for one hour or one day," said Tiebile Drame, head of PARENA, the party who first aired the idea. He said the idea had been put to the junta but there has been no official reaction.
In a communique on Tuesday, ECOWAS leaders "instructed the ECOWAS Commission to put the ECOWAS Standby Force in a state of readiness for all eventualities".
However the statement did not any include specifics of possible military action. ECOWAS, which has no standing army of its own, would have to go through potentially lengthy processes to raise sufficient troops from member states.
The national board of the regional central bank BCEAO has decided to continue supplying local banks in Mali with banknotes for the time being, a source said, scotching worries it would cut money supply off to pressure the junta.
(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Mark John and Mark Heinrich)