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Mali's junta seeks help against Taureg rebels

Mali's coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo has asked for external help to halt advancing Tuareg rebels who have seized another key northern town from overwhelmed soldiers.

"The rebels continue to attack our country and terrorise our people," Sanogo told journalists on Friday at the military barracks outside Bamako, the capital which have become the junta's headquarters.

"The situation is now critical, our army needs support from Mali's friends to save the civilian population and protect Mali's territorial integrity."

The appeal came as sources said that Tuareg separatist rebels and an allied armed group on Friday entered and seized control of the strategic town of Kidal, 1,000km from the capital.

Angry at the government's "incompetence" in dealing with the Taureg rebels, soldiers led by Sanogo toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure's government on March 22, a move which prompted stiff rebukes from abroad.

The Tuareg rebel Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) in mid-January relaunched a decades-old fight for the independence of what the Tuareg consider their homeland in the northern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation.

The poorly-equipped Malian army has proved no match for the desert warriors, boosted by the return of heavily-armed fighters from Libya's conflict.

The rebels have since seized on the confusion caused by the coup to prepare offensives on the three regional centres in Mali's remote north.

In their most important victory so far, they entered Kidal after soldiers abandoned one of the two local military camps there, military and diplomatic sources told the Reuters news agency.

ECOWAS ultimatum

The week-old junta has meanwhile been frozen out by its foreign allies.

The 15-nation regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), on Thursday threatened a "diplomatic and financial embargo" unless constitutional order was restored within 72 hours - a move which could cripple the landlocked nation.

The regional leaders tightened the noose around the junta after scrapping a mediation mission in mid-air when dozens of pro-coup demonstrators swarmed the runway at Bamako's airport, preventing them from landing on Thursday.

At Friday's news conference, Sanogo said he "understands" the position of the West Africa regional body.

But he added that stability in Mali would have a direct influence on the entire region.

He said the coup was a necessary step in order to improve the situation in the country.

"Mali's democracy was suffering ... the whole country was not in in a good shape with war that broke in the north in 2006."

He said the army seized control of the country with the plan of "holding a rapid process of normalisation and organising free and transparent elections".

Meanwhile on Friday, lines of people 50 deep formed outside bank branches in Bamako as panic spread following the threat of financial sanctions by ECOWAS, the AP news agency reported.

ECOWAS had already suspended Mali on Tuesday and has warned its regional troops are on standby.

The grouping has threatened to use military force as a last resort to reverse the coup.

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