BAMAKO, March 23 (Reuters) - Tuareg rebels in northern Malipushed south to occupy positions vacated by government forces, sources said, as mutinous soldiers in the distant capital sought to complete a coup by arresting the president.
The MNLA rebels were approaching towns in the desert north, apparently taking advantage of the confusion created by a coup attempt in the capital Bamako by low-ranking soldiers angry at thegovernment's handling of the uprising.
By late on Wednesday, the mutinous soldiers had over-run the presidential palace, were in control of state television and roamed the streets of Bamako. But President Amadou Toumani Toure's whereabouts were still unconfirmed, officials said.
Mali, which was flooded with men and weapons after Libya's civil war, was being rocked by crises - including the Tuareg-led rebellion, a growing Islamist threat and a food crisis - well before the soldiers mutinied.
A Malian officer in the northern town of Kidal said rebels had occupied the military camp in Anefis, 100 km (60 miles) to the southwest, after government forces withdrew.
"The army has pulled back to Gao," a source in Timbuktu, another main town in the north, told Reuters, asking not to be named. "There is no longer any military leadership. (The rebels) will take the towns in the north," he said.
The MNLA rebels, whose numbers have been swollen by Malian Tuareg returning from the ranks of Libya's army, have been fighting since mid-January for an independent north. They have pushed government soldiers out of remote towns but had not yet threatened the regional capitals of Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao.
Rebels pledged on Thursday to take advantage of the chaos as senior civilian and military officials in northern regions were arrested by mutinous soldiers.
Sporadic gunfire rang out in Bamako late on Thursday and the streets were largely deserted but mutinous soldiers moved around the capital on trucks, motorcycles and on foot.
The exact whereabouts of Toure, who has overseen a decade of relative stability, are unknown but officials in his camp and diplomats said they believed he was being protected by a pocket of loyalist soldiers.
Mutinous soldiers said they would launch an attack on the parachute regiment they believe is protecting the president.
"We will finish it this evening," said one soldier at an abandoned fuel station in the city.
Toure, 63, a former paratrooper who seized power in 1991, had gained the nickname "Soldier of Democracy" in his West African state and had been preparing to cede power in April after an election.
Mali's neighbors, the United Nations and world powers from Paris to Washington called for a return to constitutional rule. The regional decision-making body ECOWAS Commission said it would not recognize the junta.
The 7,000-strong army has for weeks sought better weapons to fight the rebels.
Captain Amadou Sanogo, president of the newly formed National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR), said the poor handling of the crisis in the north was mostly to blame for the coup.
Speaking to pan-African television station Africable, Sanogo, who said he received training from U.S. Marines and intelligence, pledged not to remain in power but refused to give a timeframe for restoring civilian rule.
"Three months, 6 months, 9 months, it will depend on the structure that we put in place for me to go back to being a soldier. Someone else will do the rest," Sanogo said.
"We have come asking for decent living conditions and to be treated well ... we will fight for this," he added.
Restoring state authority to the north was the priority, he said. But, amid reports of arrests of ministers and other senior government officials, Sanogo implied that those detained would face trial for alleged crimes.
"We are not killers. I am not a killer. But the moment was right and everyone will have to face charges before the appropriate authority," he said.
(Writing by David Lewis and Bate Felix; Editing by Janet Lawrence)