Malians in the country's north, where a Tuareg rebellion buoyed by last week's coup is raging, have rallied in support of the new military leaders.
Mali's army said on Saturday that it had withdrawn its troops from the northern towns of Ansogo and Bourem to reinforce its positions in Gao, hours after thousands marched there to voice approval of the coup leaders and the offensive against Tuareg rebels.
Gao is the largest town in northern Mali that remains under the control of Mali's new military rulers.
Protesters, some holding banners that read "Peace first, elections later", took to the streets in what appeared to be a direct rejection of international calls for the military leaders to step down.
"Contrary to what the international opinion thinks, we support these forces because they can bring back security here, and afterwards democracy," said Nouhou Toure, speaking for Ganda Izo, a local armed group.
The protest came as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) rejected an appeal for aid from Captain Amadou Sanogo, the coup leader, saying that the bloc would be willing to help only if constitutional normality was restored.
"ECOWAS is quite willing to assist the country to protect its territorial integrity, but we cannot do so when the power in place in Bamako is not legitimate ... There is zero tolerance to power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means," Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, the ECOWAS commission chief, told Al Jazeera on Friday.
He also said that Sanogo should immediately step down and allow ECOWAS to organise a political transition.
"It is not for him [Sanogo] to [organise elections]," he said. "We want him to return to constitutional normality and then we can discuss a transition period and then organise the election according to the provisions of the Malian constitution."
Ouedraogo added, however, that he was confident talks would take place with coup leaders before the 72-hour ECOWAS deadline expired.
"We have indications that they want to continue dialogue and I think that this weekend they will be in touch to see how they are going to comply to the ECOWAS demands. But if by the deadline of Monday they have not done so, we have instruction to apply the sanctions," he said.
Live Box 2012323113540794475
ECOWAS suspended Mali on Tuesday and has warned that its regional troops are on standby to intervene.
On Thursday, the bloc threatened a "diplomatic and financial embargo" unless constitutional order was restored within 72 hours - a move which could cripple the landlocked nation.
Earlier, Sanogo had asked for external help to halt advancing Tuareg fighters in the north, who have seized a series of northern towns from overwhelmed soldiers.
The soldiers cited government failure to arm them sufficiently to fight the rebels as the major reason for toppling the democratically elected government of President Amadou Toumani Toure.
"The rebels continue to attack our country and terrorise our people," Sanogo told journalists on Friday at the military barracks outside the capital Bamako, which have become the coup leaders' 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."
Tuaregs take Kidal
The withdrawal from Ansogo and Bourem came after Tuareg fighters and their allies entered and seized control of the town of Kidal, 1,000km from the capital.
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 northern Mali.
The poorly-equipped Malian army has proved no match for the rebels, 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 launch offensives on 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.
"The rebel Tuareg, the MNLA, and fighters affiliated with AQIM, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, managed to easily overrun the city of Kidal," Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra reported from Bamako on Friday.
"They are now in control of the city with some concerns now that they might move to the city of Gao. They are now in control of three cities, Tessalit, Aguelhok and Kidal. If they manage to control Gao, that is going to be quite a significant blow for the coup leaders," he added.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies