By David Lewis and Adama Diarra
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Mali's junta leader appealed for outside help to secure the West African country after separatist Tuareg rebels took the strategic northern town of Kidal on Friday in their biggest victory yet.
Arms spilling out of Libya from last year's conflict have bolstered a northern rebellion in Mali. President Amadou Toumani Toure was facing rising unpopularity over his failure to halt the rebellion before he was toppled in last week's coup.
But the coup has if anything emboldened the rebels, while the coup leaders have been internationally condemned - including by neighbors which on Thursday gave them 72 hours to surrender power or see Mali's borders and bank funding shut off.
"Our army needs the help of Mali's friends to save the civilian population and Mali's territorial integrity," coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo told reporters at the barracks outside the capital Bamako serving as the president's office.
The rebels, who began fighting for an independent north in January, have seized on the confusion to prepare offensives on the three regional centers in Mali's north. Among their number are Ansar Edine, an Islamist group with loose personal ties to local al Qaeda militants and which promotes sharia law.
Claiming its most significant victory so far, the rebel MNLA group said on its website it had taken Kidal, a town of 25,000, after 48 hours of fighting.
"The MNLA will continue its advance on the two other regional capitals of Azawad," it said of the northern desert territory it sees as its rightful homeland.
A junta statement confirmed the fall of Kidal. "To preserve the life of the people of Kidal, the military command decided not to prolong the battle," it said.
The rebels included MNLA, Ansar Edine and local al Qaeda fighters, the statement said.
A military source in Kidal told Reuters soldiers abandoned positions in one camp so as to coordinate a counter-offensive.
"The rebels are going around town, telling people to go about their business as usual. They are all armed, in four-wheel drive vehicles. Women uttered cries of joy to greet them at the airport," said Kidal resident Moussa Maiga by phone.
However Awa Toure, a civil servant in the town, was among several witnesses who said rebels pillaged local government office buildings and some private homes.
"PEACE FIRST, ELECTIONS LATER"
News of Kidal's fall sparked panic in Timbuktu and Gao, the two other regional centers in Mali's north, a mainly desert area bigger than France.
"There is no point in being optimistic anymore - I am going to join my family in Bamako," teacher Ali Samba said by SMS of the capital 1,000 km (625 miles) south.
Yet others were only just arriving in Gao, having fled the violence in Kidal in buses and trucks. "They held us up and took a moped," said a young Tuareg called Mohamed Ag El Moctar of a rebel attack on the truck in which he was travelling.
Around 4,000 locals in Gao joined a march organized by civil society and local militias in support of the junta and their battle against the northern separatists. Some held banners that read "Peace first, elections later" - a direct rejection of international calls for the junta to step down.
Mali's neighbors on Thursday demanded the leaders begin handing back power to civilians by Monday or face a crippling closure of trade borders, diplomatic isolation and a freeze in funding from the regional central bank.
Such measures could further damage the interests of foreign miners in Africa's third biggest gold producer. Uncertainty has already pushed their shares lower on Western stock exchanges.
While not responding directly to the ultimatum, Sanogo said the junta "understood the situation" of the 15-member West African ECOWAS bloc, but pleaded for them to look again at land-locked Mali's plight and possible solutions.
"We are inviting ECOWAS to deepen its analysis of the situation in Mali and how Mali got here," said Sanogo, who has previously described the entire political class around Toure as corrupt and incompetent.
Fragile neighbors such as Niger and Ivory Coast are concerned that a successful coup in Mali may encourage copy-cat moves on their territory. ECOWAS has threatened to use military force as a last resort to reverse the coup.
(Additional reporting by Cheick Dioura in Gao; Writing by Bate Felix and Mark John; Editing by Louise Ireland)