(Adds defence minister replaced, demonstrator quote)
BAMAKO, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Hundreds of Malians set up barricades and burned tyres in the streets of Bamako on Thursday, shutting down the capital in protests against the government’s handling of a rebellion that has seized several northern towns.
The demonstrations came amid reports the Tuareg-led rebels, who are fighting for an independent north, had taken control of the northeastern town of Menaka.
Mali’s president replaced his defence minister on Thursday evening in an apparent concession to demonstrators, who accuse the government of failing to give its soldiers enough arms or equipment.
Defence Minister Sadio Gassama swapped posts with Natie Plea, who had previously held the lower-profile interior security ministry portfolio.
Dozens of people have been reported killed and thousands of civilians have fled their homes after the rebels launched a three-pronged assault in mid-January.
Anti-government demonstrations erupted after reports that soldiers fighting the rebels had run out of ammunition and dozens of troops had been executed by insurgents.
“We can’t go on seeing our relatives killed in the north as if there wasn’t any authority or any army in the country,” said one of the Bamako demonstrators, 30-year-old Oumar Traore.
A Reuters reporter in Bamako said shops were shuttered early in the afternoon and smoke hung over parts of the city after tyres had been set on fire.
The protests come a day after witnesses said the wives and relatives of Malian soldiers serving in the north attacked government buildings and targeted at least one business run by a Tuareg in the town of Kati, just northwest of Bamako.
Local media reported that the women had earlier tried to march on to the presidency to complain that Mali’s army was short of equipment and experience.
The bloodiest of the clashes in the rebellion so far seems to have taken place in Aguelhoc, in Mali’s far north, where Malian military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say dozens of soldiers were killed, many of them executed.
Bamako has accused the rebels of atrocities and collaborating with local al Qaeda groups but not given any official death toll.
The Tuareg-led MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) rebels have denied any al Qaeda link, accusing the government of spreading propaganda.
Military sources said on Thursday that the MNLA rebels had taken control of the town of Menaka after the military withdrew.
“We are in the process of regrouping. Our men have pulled out of Menaka and when we left the rebels entered the town. It was a tactical retreat,” a military source told Reuters.
In his first public statement since the rebellion began, Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Toure late on Wednesday pledged not to give in to separatist demands but, in a sign of concerns that the conflict could spread, called on Malians to refrain from attacks on any particular community.
“Do not confuse those who are shooting at military bases with those who are living amongst us, who are our neighbours, colleagues,” he said on state television. (Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Giles Elgood and Andrew Heavens)