BAMAKO (Reuters) - Life in Mali's capital slowly returned to normal on Sunday after most mutinous soldiers returned to their barracks, but rebels exploiting a military coup in the country pushed towards three northern towns.
Underscoring the threat to Mali's north, the head of the Ganda Iso militia, which has tried to fill the gap left by defeated or stretched government forces, was killed alongside about ten others in clashes with the rebels, a militia source said.
The scene in Bamako, the capital, was calmer though. Petrol stations and market stalls reopened after the military junta that ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure in an overnight coup last Wednesday ordered all soldiers back to barracks. There was also less gunfire and looting.
"Compared to those other days, things are calm. We can get on with our lives a bit," said Bouba Traore, drinking tea with friends under a tree. "I'm not sure we can say it is completely normal though. We'll have to wait until Tuesday or Wednesday for that."
Traffic police returned to busy intersections and workers were back on building sites for the first time in days. At the Medine market, trucks unloaded mountains of yams, onions and tomatoes.
Wedding corteges also toured the streets of the capital which, during the week, had been full of soldiers racing through town, hijacking cars and firing weapons into the air.
Last week's coup was born out of frustration among mainly low-ranking soldiers over a lack of equipment to battle Tuareg-led rebels fighting for independence for the vast desert north.
While the rebels were strengthened by men and arms returning from Libya's war, Malian soldiers complained they had been dispatched to the front short of everything from weapons to food, leading to several routs of the government army.
Despite the fact that elections had been scheduled for April and Toure was not a candidate, the junta said it had to seize power to restore order before polls.
A joint African/United Nations mission visiting the country on Friday told the new military leaders that their behavior was unacceptable. Donors have cut aid and the African Union has suspended Mali. West Africa's ECOWAS bloc is expected to do the same at a summit in Ivory Coast on Tuesday.
A few hundred pro-coup demonstrators took to Bamako's streets late on Saturday. A coalition of political parties and civil society groups on Sunday set up the "United Front for the Protection of Democracy and the Republic." But it has not yet put forward any concrete plans.
Reaction to the coup has otherwise been muted in the capital. "I don't approve of this coup, which will only force the country to take a step backwards," said Oumar Sinayogo, a carpenter. "But now it is done, we must pray for God to help us find a way out of this situation."
Before the coup, Mali's army had struggled to contain the rebels and militia groups had popped up in and around the northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu.
On Sunday, clashes between Malian rebels and Ganda Iso, one of these pro-government armed groups, killed at least 10 people. Amadou Diallo, the head of Ganda Iso, was among the dead, a militia source told Reuters.
The fighting took place about 120 km east of Gao, where the junta is scrambling to reinforce its positions as the town is a gateway to the north.
Further north, separatist MNLA rebels and Ansar Eddine, a group that wants to impose sharia law in Mali, have forces surrounding the town of Kidal, diplomats and residents said.
A Kidal resident reported gunfire on Sunday morning for the second day in a row. A diplomat said loyalist troops in the town had held talks with both groups but the outcome was unclear.
Mali's coup reinforced regional and Western worries that the Sahel-Sahara belt in West Africa is becoming a no-man's land where Islamists, rebels and smugglers can operate freely.
Mali is at the heart of this zone and risks losing millions of dollars in Western military aid if the junta clings to power. While Mali had been criticized for a lax approach to security, the disruption caused by the coup is likely to have a more significant impact, analysts say.
"The coup has created excellent conditions for al Qaeda to entrench itself in Mali with minimal interference and is probably the greatest gift possible for those seeking to create the new nation of Azawad," Andrew McGregor, a security expert, wrote in a report for the Jamestown Foundation.
"Unless the internal collapse within the armed forces can quickly be reversed, both AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and the MNLA (Azawad National Liberation Movement) will score what may prove to be irreversible gains against a state rendered largely defenseless by its own military," he added.
Additional reporting by Adama Diarra; Editing by Richard Valdmanis, Alistair Lyon and Andrew Osborn