By David Lewis
BAMAKO (Reuters) - About 200 soldiers claiming to be government loyalists have moved back into northern Mali saying they will fight to take it back from Tuareg-led separatist and Islamist rebels that routed the army across the region three weeks ago.
The troop movement just inside Mali's eastern border with Niger came as witnesses said gunmen in rebel-held Timbuktu, near the northwestern border with Mauritania, opened fire to disperse residents protesting against the occupation of their town.
It was the first reported sign of local resistance to rebels in Mali's remote north, which experts say has become a safe haven for al Qaeda cells and smugglers.
Politicians and the military junta that ousted the president last month are not known to have drawn up a plan yet to wrest back control of the desert zone.
But a Reuters witness saw as many as 200 soldiers and dozens of vehicles under the command of Colonel El Hadj Gamou appear in the town of Lebezanga, near the border with Niger.
Gamou, a Tuareg, for weeks led Bamako's efforts to repel rebels before saying earlier this month he had joined the rebel ranks, only to reappear in Niger last week to announce he was in fact ready to lead a counter-attack with 500 men.
Two military officers in the border region said forces under Gamou pushed on Saturday some 40 km (20 miles) further north towards Gao, which is in the hands of separatist MNLA rebels and Islamist rebels who want to impose sharia (Islamic law).
FEARS OF ARMED CHAOS
"We have set up an advanced post at Ouatagouna. This is the Malian army retaking its territory," an officer who only gave his name as Captain Ag Meylou told Reuters by telephone.
It was not clear under whose orders Gamou was operating. His men received food and communications equipment coming from Niger but it was not clear who had provided it, the witness said.
There are fears in the Sahara region that rebels, Islamists and international criminal gangs will be allowed to dig in amid the disorder in the Malian capital following the coup, complicating efforts to dislodge them.
A Reuters witness in Gao saw rebel forces on Saturday heading in the direction of the Niger border region, some 150 km (90 miles) away.
Meanwhile, residents in Timbuktu, one of the three main northern towns occupied by rebels, said Islamists fired into the air to disperse 150-200 protesters on Friday afternoon.
"The state is not doing anything so we are trying to organize ourselves," one protesters told Reuters by telephone, asking not to be named.
There has been one other, much smaller, anti-rebel demonstration in the town of Kidal, to the north.
Residents in both Gao and Timbuktu have spoken of foreign fighters among the rebels who jointly control the towns but these assertions have so far been impossible to verify.
A delegation of Malian politicians acting under the junta's aegis has held preliminary talks with the separatist MNLA and called on any foreign fighters to leave its territory.
"We are not ashamed of dialogue but we will not go into talks with a knife at our throats," said Cheick Modibo Diarra in his first televised statement since being made interim prime minister by the junta this week.
(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Mark Heinrich)