GAO/BAMAKO Heavily armed Malian rebels in pick-up trucks attacked the northern garrison town of Gao on Saturday, capitalizing on the chaos after last week's military coup to make further gains.
The assault came a day after rebels - a loose alliance of separatist nomad Tuaregs and local Islamists - seized the town of Kidal, which is one of the three main towns of Mali's north, along with Gao and the historic trading city of Timbuktu.
Junta leaders, whose neighbors have given them until Monday to return power to civilians or face a crippling closure of trade borders and other sanctions, pledged to come up with proposals "very quickly" to restore constitutional order.
"We do not want to confiscate power," Colonel Moussa Sinko Coulibaly told reporters in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, after talks with Burkina President Blaise Compaore, the main mediator in the crisis.
"We will try to refine proposals to quickly reach an institutional solution acceptable to (West African bloc) ECOWAS, the international community but also of course our national community," said Coulibaly, head of cabinet for junta leader Amadou Sanogo.
In northern Mali, a Reuters reporter saw the rebels entering the town of Gao and hoisting the flag of Azawad, the desert territory bigger than France that they want to make their homeland, before pulling back after meeting resistance.
Some rebels shouted "God is Great" in Arabic, suggesting loyalty to Islamist groups that are not separatist but aim to impose Islamic sharia law on the mostly Muslim country.
Gao, a town of 90,000 people, has the largest garrison in the north, and army resistance was stronger than in Kidal.
Government forces held onto the town centre and in the afternoon rebel units began to pull back, their base in a captured fire station on Gao's outskirts coming under attack from army helicopters and heavy weapons.
"The army is in charge of the town centre and the military camps, which are safe and 100 percent equipped. If so much as a cow walks in front of those camps it will get shot at," Abdou Yehia Maiga, a leader of the anti-rebel local Ganda Koy militia, told Reuters by telephone.
The unrest in Mali, Africa's third largest gold-producer, has been fuelled by weapons brought out of Libya during last year's conflict, and risks creating a vast new lawless zone in the Saharan desert that Islamists and criminals could exploit.
"LOOKING OVER THEIR SHOULDERS"
Mid-ranking officers behind last week's coup accused the government of giving them inadequate resources to fight the rebels. But the coup has backfired spectacularly, emboldening the rebels to take further ground.
Advances by the Tuareg-led rebels, who have joined forces with Islamist allies, are likely to increase Western concerns about growing insecurity in West Africa.
"If you have a successful Islamist revolt in northern Mali, people will sit up and take notice," John Campbell, the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, told Reuters this week.
Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, said that one of the leaders who might be "looking over their shoulders" at the rebellion would be Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, whose government is battling an insurgency by the Islamist sect Boko Haram in the Muslim north of Africa's top oil producer.
Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure, whose decade in power was associated with stability but also rising frustration with a political elite accused of condoning widespread corruption, has said he is safe in an undisclosed location in Mali.
Coup leader Sanogo, who has won significant street support, pleaded on Friday for outside help to preserve the territorial unity of the cotton- and gold-producing former French colony.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, the current head of the ECOWAS group, told local state television that a previously announced regional stand-by force of 2,000 could intervene against the rebels once civilians were back in power.
"The West African army should come to the rescue of the Malian people ... Of course, that is tied to a return of constitutional order," he noted.
(Additional reporting by Mark John and David Lewis in Dakar; Mathieu Bonkoungou in Ouagadougou; Ange Aboa in Abidjan and Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Kevin Liffey)