Tuareg rebels in northern Mali pushed south to occupy positions abandoned by government forces, sources said, as mutinous soldiers in the distant capital Bamako sought to complete a coup by hunting down the president.

The MNLA rebels were approaching towns in the desert north, taking advantage of the confusion created by the attempted coup in Bamako by low-ranking soldiers, a military source told Reuters.

Mutinous soldiers, angered by what they saw as the government's poor handling of the northern rebellion, roamed the streets of the capital after over-running the presidential palace and taking control of state television.

The head of a body set up by the mutineers, speaking to journalists, suggested soldiers were trying to arrest President Amadou Toumani Toure. The president's whereabouts were unknown, though there were unconfirmed reports he was being protected by loyalist troops in the city.

Sporadic gunfire could be heard in the capital in the early hours of the morning on Friday, a Reuters reporter said.

Mali, which was flooded with men and weapons after Libya's civil war, was already facing the Tuareg-led rebellion, a growing Islamist threat and a food crisis when the coup broke out after soldiers mutinied Wednesday.

A Malian officer in the northern town of Kidal said rebels had occupied the military camp in Anefis, 100 km (60 miles) to the southwest, after government forces withdrew.

The army has pulled back to Gao, a source in Timbuktu, another main town in the north, told Reuters, asking not to be named. There is no longer any military leadership. (The rebels) will take the towns in the north, he said.

The MNLA said on its website that it had taken town on the Gao-Kidal highway after Malian troops abandoned their positions and withdrew to Gao.

The MNLA rebels, whose numbers have been swollen by Malian Tuareg returning from the ranks of Libya's army, have been fighting since mid-January for an independent north. They have pushed government soldiers out of remote towns but had not yet threatened the regional capitals of Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao.

Rebels pledged on Thursday to take advantage of the chaos as senior civilian and military officials in northern regions were arrested by mutinous soldiers.

PROTECTED

Diplomats and officials said they believed Toure was being protected by a pocket of loyalist soldiers.

Mutinous soldiers said they would launch an attack on the parachute regiment they believe is protecting the president, who has overseen a decade of relative stability.

Toure, 63, a former paratrooper who seized power in 1991, had gained the nickname Soldier of Democracy in his West African state and had been preparing to cede power in April after an election.

Mali's neighbours, the United Nations and world powers from Paris to Washington called for a return to constitutional rule. Regional body ECOWAS said it would not recognise the junta.

The World Bank and African Development Bank on Thursday condemned the military coup and suspended funds to Mali.

U.S. aid group Millennium Challenge Corporation, which had been working on developing the country's agriculture and irrigation system, suspended operations on Thursday, criticising the unconstitutional actions of the mutineers.

Captain Amadou Sanogo, president of the newly formed National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR), a body set up by the mutinous soldiers, said the coup had been provoked by the government's poor handling of the crisis in the north.

Sanogo, who said he had received training from U.S. Marines and intelligence, told pan-African television station Africable on Thursday he would not remain in power but refused to give a timeframe for restoring civilian rule.

Soldiers had long complained they had not been given the right equipment to fight the northern rebels.

Three months, six months, nine months, it will depend on the structure that we put in place for me to go back to being a soldier. Someone else will do the rest, Sanogo said.

We have come asking for decent living conditions and to be treated well ... We will fight for this, he added.

Restoring state authority to the north was the priority, he said. But, amid reports of arrests of ministers and other senior government officials, Sanogo implied that those detained would face trial for alleged crimes.

We are not killers. I am not a killer. But the moment was right and everyone will have to face charges before the appropriate authority, he said.

(Writing by David Lewis and Bate Felix; Editing by Janet Lawrence)