Supporters of Mali's M5 opposition movement staged a rally on Friday, with the group poised to join the government following the crisis-stricken country's second coup in nine months.
Several hundred M5 supporters assembled at a central square in the capital Bamako, AFP journalists said, to commemorate the founding of the movement, which powered mass protests last year.
But the long-planned rally was held after strongman Colonel Assimi Goita, who led a coup on the back of the protests, ousted the civilian transitional president and prime minister on May 24.
The second putsch has sparked diplomatic uproar, prompting both the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to suspend Mali.
France on Friday suspended joint military operations with Malian forces, and stopped providing military advice.
The former colonial power has thousands of troops stationed in the Sahel to help fight jihadist violence that erupted in Mali in 2012 and now threatens the region.
"Mali must look for other partners, France is not the only country in the world," said Abdoulaye Cisse, a young M5 member at the protest.
Not everyone agreed.
Civil servant Kalou Sow said that the "Malian people should be grateful to France," but admitted that "eight years without results is not easy".
Observers were closely watching Friday's rally for hints at Mali's future political direction.
Goita may name a leading M5 figure as his new prime minister, a move that some argue could soften international criticism of the second coup.
The colonel is expected to be formally appointed as Mali's transitional president on Monday, which would pave the way towards naming a civilian prime minister -- a key international demand.
- 'Guarantees' -
France's defence ministry said suspending its military cooperation was a "conservative and temporary measure" pending "guarantees" that the ruling military will stage elections in February 2022.
Mali's armed forces are poorly equipped in their fight with the highly mobile insurgents.
They depend crucially on airpower and surveillance provided by the 5,100-man Barkhane force.
The French mission has jet fighters and drones at a base near Niamey, the capital of neighbouring Niger, as well as access to French military satellites and intelligence provided by allies.
French army spokesman Frederic Barbry told AFP that Barkhane troops will continue to operate in Mali but joint operations with the country's military have been suspended.
This also applies to military training and to the French-initiated international alliance of special forces, known as Takuba, Barby added.
A Western diplomat, who requested anonymity, said that French troops are in practice no longer leaving their bases.
French forces will nonetheless continue to launch air strikes on jihadist leaders, the diplomat added.
Mali's junta did not comment on France's decision.
- Influential imam -
On August 18 last year, Goita led army officers in ousting elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, following mass protests over perceived corruption and the bloody jihadist insurgency.
M5 had spearheaded the protests against Keita in 2020, but was subsequently sidelined in the army-dominated post-coup administration.
This transitional government pledged to reform the constitution by October, and stage elections in February next year.
But the M5 became a vocal critic, calling the transitional government a "disguised military regime."
There has been a rapprochement between the group and the army since the May 24 coup, however.
Goita has said he would prefer to name an M5 figure as his prime minister and the group put forward one of its cadres, Choguel Maiga, as a candidate.
But that choice has in turn raised questions about Mali's future, in particular concerning the potential role of religious leader Mahmoud Dicko, who is close to Maiga.
The influential imam was viewed as the figurehead of the M5 during the anti-Keita protests, but later distanced himself from the movement.
Maiga is also a vocal critic of the 2015 Algiers peace accord, a shaky agreement between the central government and several armed groups.
The deal, which has never been fully implemented, is seen as crucial to ending Mali's grinding conflict.
Speaking on Friday Maiga pledged that Mali would "respect our international commitments which are not contrary to the fundamental interests of the Malian people," adding that there were no international commitments that were "fundamentally against the interests of Mali".
He told people rallying in Bamako that Mali needed a helping hand from its allies but that "invective, sanctions, threats will only complicate the situation".