Mali's coup leaders have unveiled a new constitution and pledged to hold elections even as the West African nation's neighbours prepared to send a high-level delegation to lobby for the restoration of democracy.
The charter, which did not specify when the elections would be held, came hours after the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, threatened sanctions and the use of military force to reverse last week's coup that ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure.
A statement read out on behalf of the coup leaders on state television said none of them would stand in the upcoming elections.
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 US-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. It also granted immunity to the leaders of the coup, that left three people dead.
Ousted leader speaks
Meanwhile, Toure, whose whereabouts have been unknown since he was overthrown on March 22, on Wednesday told the AFP news agency he was safe in Bamako and was not being held by the coup leaders.
"I am indeed in Bamako, and thank God my family and I are doing well," Toure said in a brief telephone conversation.
Asked about his location, Toure responded: "Does it matter? What is important to know, is that I am not being held prisoner.
"I am obviously following what is happening, I wish with all my heart that peace and democracy triumph in Mali. I have nothing else to say for the moment," he added.
The fate of the ousted president, 63, has raised concern in the past six days, since renegade soldiers forced him to flee as they fired on the presidency last weekend in a mutiny which led to a full-blown coup.
Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from capital Bamako, a city under the firm control of the coup leaders, said Toure's presence there was revealing.
"That means that maybe he's not with his troops anymore," explaining that the coup leaders have firm control on the city.
He noted that Toure's message came on the eve of the ECOWAS delegation, in a reminder from Toure that he was still a player in the country's political life.
Support for coup leaders
The coup, triggered by army anger at the government's handling of a northern rebellion, has been condemned by the United Nations, Mali's neighbours and powers including France and the United States.
"They should stay to resolve the problems in the north, corruption and education. That is more important than elections."
- Khalifa Sogo, Malian citizen
But several thousand Malians protested on Wednesday against international interference - in the largest show of backing for the new leadership, insisting the soldiers be left to run the state while tackling the rebellion.
"They 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.
"It's the first show of public support," Ahelbarra reported, adding that some people claimed it was choreographed by coup leader Sanogo.
"He has to show the world that he's popular, that people love him, that people are taking to the streets to defend his policies."
The show of support came as the coup leaders faced growing international pressure and isolation.
ECOWAS has suspended Mali's membership and is sending five presidents to Mali to try to "restore constitutional order" on Thursday.
The bloc is also putting a peacekeeping force on standby.
Alassane Ouattara, the president of Ivory Coast who holds the rotating chair of ECOWAS, told reporters after an emergency meeting in the capital of his nation - that itself was shot up and bloodied in a political crisis last
year - that Mali's democracy cannot be abandoned.
"We cannot allow this country endowed with such precious democratic instruments, dating back at least two decades, to leave history by regressing. It's why Mali needs to immediately return its democratic institutions to normal,'' said Ouattara.
"This position is non-negotiable."