* West African leaders to meet in Senegal
* Rebels seize capitals of three northern regions
* Rebels say aim not to go beyond northern area
By Bate Felix
BAMAKO, April 2 (Reuters) - Mali braced for possible sanctions on Monday after its military rulers pledged to start returning power to civilians but no concrete moves were taken and it was not clear if neighbours would lift threats of isolation.
A 72-hour deadline, set by West African bloc ECOWAS, for soldiers to start returning to barracks expired as northern separatist rebels said they had completed a lightning push south, seizing three regional capitals in as many days as Mali’s army units retreated.
The coup, a month before President Amadou Toumani Toure was due to step down for elections has shattered the international reputation of stability and democracy that Africa’s No. 3 gold producer previously enjoyed.
The push by rebels, whose ranks were swelled by fighters returning from Libya’s conflict, has also deepened insecurity across the Sahara-Sahel band, already awash with Islamists, traffickers and bandits.
Amadou Sanogo, an army captain who led a March 21 coup, on Sunday pledged to reinstate the constitution and all state institutions before holding an election.
ECOWAS, which has threatened the closure of trade borders, diplomatic isolation and a freeze in funding from the regional central bank, did not officially react to the move.
Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara, who heads ECOWAS, said he spoke to Mali’s junta chief on Sunday to thank him for a pledge to restore constitutional order but did not say if the sanction threat remained in place.
“We will work (with other leaders) as soon as possible, without delay so that this (return to constitutional rule) will be done,” Ouattara said on Senegalese state television.
West African leaders are due to meet in Dakar on Monday, and will discuss Mali on the sidelines of the swearing-in of Senegal’s new president, Macky Sall, officials said.
The threat of sanctions underlines how seriously Mali’s neighbours take a coup which they fear could trigger similar attempts in countries which have been blighted by decades of civil war and power grabs.
Sanogo cited Toure’s poor handling of the rebellion, which has seen soldiers lack the equipment, ammunition and food in remote zones, as the main reason for the coup.
Yet, since the military came to power, the MNLA rebels, seemingly operating alongside another group that wants to impose sharia law, have overrun the capitals of the three regions they want to seize to create an independent state called Azawad.
Timbuktu, after Kidal on Friday and Gao on Saturday, was the last to fall as army units fled on Sunday.
Hama Ag Mahmoud, a member of the MNLA’s political wing, said the group did not plan on pushing further south.
“Our aim today is not to go beyond the borders of Azawad,” he told Reuters in Mauritania.
“We don’t want to give anyone the impression that we are warmongers so, once we have freed the areas we target, the job is done,” he added.
Ag Mahmoud rejected any MNLA rebel links with Islamist groups but witnesses in Kidal and Gao reported signs of Islamist fighters having collaborated with the MNLA in the attacks on the towns.
Residents in the regional capital of Kidal, the northernmost of the towns captured, reported the black flags of Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Edine movement, which wants to impose sharia law across Mali, flying in many parts of town.
Music had been banned from being broadcast on radio stations while residents were no longer allowed to wear Western clothes, one resident told Reuters, asking not to be named.
Meanwhile, a witness in Gao said many symbols of the state or Western influence were attacked by Islamist gunmen on Sunday.
Ouattara said the West African leaders assembled in Senegal would discuss the crisis in Mali’s north.
“We strongly support Mali’s territorial integrity and we will put all necessary measures so as to end the rebellion and so that Mali can regain its territorial integrity,” he said.
ECOWAS has been mulling for weeks how to help Bamako fight off the rebellion but the bloc has no standing army and assistance from the region and Western partners has been effectively blocked by the coup. (Additional reporting by Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott. Adama Diarra in Bamako; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Michael Roddy)