Mali's prime minister was forced to resign yesterday by the soldiers who staged a coup in March, complicating international efforts to help push Islamists from the north of the country.

Once a beacon of democracy in West Africa, Mali has been mired in crisis since ethnic Tuareg rebels and al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters seized the northern two-thirds of the arid nation in the wake of the coup.

Although the soldiers handed over to a civilian president and prime minister under international pressure, they have remained powerful.

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Cheick Modibo Diarra resigned as prime minister hours after he was arrested trying to leave the country for former colonial power France, and was brought to the ex-junta's headquarters at a barracks in Kati, just outside Bamako.

"I, Cheick Modibo Diarra, hereby resign with my entire government," a nervous-looking Diarra said in a short statement broadcast on state television.

Mr Diarra is a former Nasa scientist and Microsoft chief for Africa who was made prime minister in April.

Fearing Mali has become a safe haven for terrorism and organised crime, West African leaders have signed off on a plan to send 3300 soldiers there to revamp Mali's army and then support operations to retake the north.

Mr Diarra's forced resignation was a clear indication that those behind the coup still maintained considerable control, a fact that could discourage international partners from backing the plan until civilian rule is strengthened.

France called for a new government to be formed quickly after the resignation.

"These developments underline the need for the rapid deployment of an African stabilisation force," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said.

A spokesman for the former junta said yesterday's events did not amount to a new coup and that interim civilian president Diouncounda Traore remained in place.

There was no immediate reaction from the president.