BAMAKO — Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore returned to Bamako on Friday amid tight security after a two-month stay in Paris for medical treatment after he was attacked by a mob in his office.
"I forgive my attackers," the 70-year-old said at Bamako airport, as he landed late Friday afternoon in the west African nation, which is in a worse state of crisis than when he left it.
"The Malian people are going through a very difficult period, starved for unity. I will apply myself to that," Traore said, adding that he would address the nation on Sunday.
Armed, masked men kept watch on roofs to secure Traore's arrival, and he was greeted at the airport by embattled Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, who is facing calls for his resignation from the main political parties.
Ex-junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, who led a March 22 coup which plunged the previously stable democracy into crisis, was also present.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Traore's return "represents an important step in moving Mali back onto a path leading to the restoration of a freely elected democratic government."
The United States called on all "parties to draw on the Malian tradition of consensus, tolerance, and good will to form an effective unity government by July 31, 2012," she added in a statement.
Traore said he was getting "better every day" after suffering a head injury when a mob of protesters against his appointment burst into his office on May 21 and beat him. He has been recovering in Paris ever since.
"As you can see, I am doing very well," he said.
The interim president has a heavy workload awaiting him.
Hardline Islamists have strengthened their hold on the vast desert north of Mali, which they seized after the coup. The interim government which took over from the junta has proved powerless to deal with the occupation.
Diarra is trying to cobble together a wider unity government on the orders of mediators from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc to deal with the mounting crisis.
ECOWAS wants to send a 3,000-strong military force to Mali, but is waiting for United Nations approval and a formal request from Bamako from a more inclusive government.
Mali has until July 31 to form the unity government, a process which faces further hurdles after key political parties called for Diarra to step down, accusing him of "incompetence and amateurishness".
They also accuse him of having no clear plan to win back the north, saying his roadmap out of the crisis was "concocted under the pressure of events".
Traore -- whose own party was one of the signatories to the statement demanding the prime minister's resignation -- will have to decide whether to keep him in the post.
Burkinabe Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole, who has been involved in mediation efforts, said Friday that if Traore needed more time to form the inclusive government "he can approach his fellow heads of state".
Traore also faces the continued influence of ex-junta leader Sanogo, who has been accused by the African Union of meddling in political affairs, and by rights bodies of overseeing torture and enforced disappearances.
Prime Minister Diarra, who has worked for NASA and was also the Microsoft chairman for Africa, is the son-in-law of Moussa Traore who became president of Mali after ousting a previous regime and ruled for 23 years until 1991.
Many in Mali see him as too close to the former putschists led by Sanogo.
Traore's main concern will be reuniting a country which has been effectively split in two by Islamists acting under the aegis of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who are in control of an area larger than France.
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, the current rotating head of ECOWAS, said on Thursday he hoped for a resolution "in the coming days" on an eventual military intervention in northern Mali.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Friday his country was prepared to act as a "facilitator" in efforts to end the crisis.
"If we can be a facilitator of that which can be done in the interest of Malians and the sub-region, we will play this role of facilitator, no more, no less," Fabius said in Niamey after meeting Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou.
The French foreign minister is on his first tour to sub-Saharan Africa, which will also take him to Senegal, Burkina Faso and Chad.
He underlined that Mali needed to first restore security in the south, through the unity government, before turning to the north.
Fabius said that if the armed groups in the north refused dialogue, African forces must act "in a secure manner on the basis of international arrangements".
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