Bamako: Mali's parliamentary head, who was forced into exile after last month's coup, returned on Sunday to this nation in crisis, marking the first step in Mali's path back to constitutional rule.

The 70-year-old Dioncounda Traore was by chance in neighbouring Burkina Faso on March 21 when disgruntled soldiers stormed the presidential palace in Mali's capital, ousting the nation's democratically elected leader and overturning two decades of democracy.

 While other ministers and associates of the toppled leader were immediately arrested, Traore remained free, though unable to return for fear of being detained.

Under intense pressure from the nations neighbouring Mali, the junior officer who seized power 17 days ago, agreed to return the nation to civilian rule, signing an accord late on Saturday in the presence of ministers from Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.

The accord is a milestone for Africa, and especially for the troubled western corner of the continent, where coups or attempted coups are still a regular occurrence.

"I am leaving for Mali with my heart full of hope. My country has known enormous difficulties, but I am leaving with the hope the people of Mali will come together to face this adversity head on," Traore told reporters at the airport before leaving.

The accord signed by coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo calls for the immediate application of Article 36 of the Malian constitution, which says that in the event that the president of the republic is unable to carry out his functions, the head of the assembly becomes interim president for a transitional period until new elections are held.

If the transfer to civilian rule is successful, it will mark one of the only times when sanctions and international pressure succeeded in peacefully overturning a military power grab in the region.

By contrast in Guinea, it took a horrific massacre by the military junta and the attempted assassination of the coup leader for the country to right itself following the 2008 coup.

And months of sanctions in Ivory Coast failed to dislodge the country's illegitimate leader last year, who only released his grip on power after UN airstrikes.

Sanogo signed the agreement inside the military barracks which has acted as the de facto seat of government ever since he and his men led a mutiny there. They broke down the doors of the armory and grabbed automatic weapons, using them to launch an attack on the presidential palace.