By Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Residents in the northern Mali town of Timbuktu reported gunfire on Sunday and army soldiers abandoning their bases, as rebels pressed ahead with their lightning campaign to carve out a desert homeland.
The alliance of Tuareg and Islamist rebels already claimed control of the garrison town of Gao on Saturday, a day after seizing another regional centre, Kidal. The ancient trading town of Timbuktu is the third and last major centre in their sights.
"It's our turn now. There is gunfire everywhere," local Mohamed Ould Ali said by telephone.
A second resident said the gunfire started around 5:00 a.m., adding however it was local militia shooting in the air rather than the start of fighting. The location of rebels who have been gathering near the town for days was not clear.
Other local sources said the regular army had fled its main positions there.
"The (military camp) is empty. Most of the soldiers from the south (of Mali) have fled. It is only the Arabs who are defending the town," a Malian source in contact with local residents and the military said of Arab-origin Malians both in the regular army and who have formed a local militia.
The main MNLA rebel group claimed control of Gao after Mali's newly installed military junta issued a statement on Saturday saying its soldiers had chosen not to fight to avoid battles near residential areas.
If they manage to seize Timbuktu, the rebels will have gained effective control of the northern half of Mali, a sparsely populated desert territory bigger than France.
The rebel advance has piled pressure on Mali's new junta who also have till midnight on Sunday to start handing back power or expose their land-locked country to economic suffocation by neighbors threatening to shut its borders.
Mid-ranking officers ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure in protest at not having adequate weaponry to tackle an alliance of nomadic and Islamist rebels boosted by heavy arms spilling out of Libya from last year's war.
But the internationally condemned putsch has backfired, plunging the country into chaos and emboldening rebels.
While coup leaders won early support from many Malians fed up with Toure's rule, the latest military defeats and the sheer scale of foreign disapproval have weakened their position.
"Everywhere it is burning. Mali cannot fight on all fronts at the same time ... Let us put our personal quarrels aside," Siaka Diakite, Secretary-General of the UNTM trade union, said in a statement backed by anti-putsch political parties.
Diakite called on coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, a hitherto obscure U.S.-trained army captain, to agree an exit plan before the deadline imposed by the 15-state ECOWAS group of West African countries for a return of power to civilians.
On Saturday junta members hinted they were ready for compromise, announcing after talks with Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, the official mediator in the crisis, that they would make new proposals for a transition to civilian rule.
"We do not want to confiscate power," Colonel Moussa Sinko Coulibaly told reporters in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, after talks with Compaore, named by West African grouping ECOWAS as main mediator in the crisis.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara said he expected Toure, who has said he is safe in an undisclosed location in Mali, to see out the remaining two months of his mandate before a transitional national unity government was named.
"Then elections should be held between 21 and 40 days later. It is up to the political class to see if that is possible," Ouattara, the ECOWAS head, told Ivorian television.
(Additional reporting by David Lewis in Dakar; writing by Mark John Editing by Maria Golovnina)