* Soldiers in capital returning to barracks after coup
* Towns in north threatened by Tuareg rebels
* Junta says needs to restore order before polls
By David Lewis and Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO, March 25 (Reuters) - Life in Bamako returned slowly to normal on Sunday after most mutinous soldiers left the streets, but rebels exploiting the army coup in Mali pushed toward three northern towns.
Gas stations and market stalls reopened in the capital after a decrease in the gunfire and looting that followed Wednesday’s overnight coup. The military junta that ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure has ordered all soldiers back to barracks.
“Compared to those other days, things are calm. We can get on with our lives a bit,” said Bouba Traore, drinking tea with friends under a tree. “I’m not sure we can say it is completely normal though. We’ll have to wait until Tuesday or Wednesday for that.”
Traffic police returned to busy intersections and workers were back on building sites for the first time in days. At the Medine market, trucks were unloading mountains of yams, onions and tomatoes from the growing regions of Sikasso and Segou.
Last week’s coup was born out of frustration among mainly low-ranking soldiers over a lack of equipment to battle Tuareg-led rebels fighting for independence for the vast desert north.
While the rebels were strengthened by men and arms returning from Libya’s war, Malian soldiers complained they had been dispatched to the front short of everything from weapons to food, leading to several routs of the government army.
Despite international isolation, and just a month before Toure was due to step down anyway, the junta has said that it had to seize power to restore order before polls.
A few hundred pro-coup demonstrators took to the streets of the capital late on Saturday. A coalition of political parties and civil society groups opposed to the coup were due to announce their planned response later on Sunday.
In the north, separatist MNLA rebels and Ansar Eddine, a group that wants to impose sharia law in Mali, both have forces surrounding the town of Kidal, diplomats and residents said.
A Kidal resident reported gunfire on Sunday morning for the second day in a row. A diplomat said loyalist troops in the town had held talks with both groups but the outcome was not clear.
“Kidal is surrounded,” said an official who works in the north and who asked not to be named. “The army is outnumbered. It is just a question of time for the capture of the town.”
Immediately after the coup, soldiers abandoned Anefis, a major base southwest of Kidal. Military sources said the junta had set up a regional command post in Gao that was scrambling to reinforce positions around the northern town.
Mali’s coup reinforced regional and Western worries that the Sahel-Sahara band in West Africa is becoming a no-man’s land where Islamists, rebels and smugglers can operate freely.
Mali is at the heart of this zone and risks losing millions of dollars in Western military aid if the junta clings to power.
While Mali had been criticised for a lax approach to security, the disruption caused by the coup is likely to have a more significant impact, analysts say.
“The coup has created excellent conditions for al Qaeda to entrench itself in Mali with minimal interference and is probably the greatest gift possible for those seeking to create the new nation of Azawad,” Andrew McGregor, a security expert, wrote in a report for the Jamestown Foundation.
“Unless the internal collapse within the armed forces can quickly be reversed, both AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and the MNLA (Azawad National Liberation Movement) will score what may prove to be irreversible gains against a state rendered largely defenseless by its own military,” he added. (Additional reporting by Adama Diarra; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Alistair Lyon)