- A witness says Tuareg rebels fired on protesters as they marched toward their HQ
- The northern town of Gao is held by the Tuareg rebels and an Islamist group
- Mali was thrown into chaos by a military coup in March
Several youths were injured Tuesday in Mali when rebels opened fire on hundreds of people protesting the killing of a local official the night before, witnesses said.
The protesters, women and children among them, gathered in the city center in the northern town of Gao on Tuesday morning. Some set up barricades and burned tires.
Gao is controlled by Tuareg rebels and the Islamist group Ansar Dine. The violence broke out as people protested against the death of a member of the City Council, Idrissa Oumarou, who was shot on Monday.
It was the Tuareg rebels' separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the MNLA, who opened fire on the protesters, said Aguissa Ag Badara, a local guide who was among the youths who marched toward the group's headquarters.
He said the rebels started shooting as they approached the building, hitting a man beside him.
"I saw three people being shot. Others say there were several injured and many had to be taken to the hospital," said Ag Badara.
Boubacar Cissé, a doctor in the hospital in Gao, said he received three severely injured patients, one of whom was in critical condition.
"This morning people took down the flag of MNLA and hoisted the Malian flag," he said. "In the street the youth were burning tires. Later they tried to raise barricades around the town. Again there was shooting."
The West African nation was plunged into chaos by a military coup in March that ousted former President Amadou Toumani Toure. Since then, ethnic Tuareg rebels and militant Islamists have taken advantage of the uncertainty to seize control of the northern portion of the country.
Ag Badara said the situation in Gao was tense Tuesday.
"Everyone is tired of the rebels and how they are treating the population. The people want the MNLA to leave Gao," he said. "The Malian military must come and help us."
MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid denied that any protesters were injured, saying the guards had fired in the air when the demonstrators approached the building.
He said he regretted the death of the councilor, which he had heard was the result of "a misunderstanding between him and the MNLA soldiers."
He claimed the protesters had been manipulated by Ansar Dine, which he said had told the group to march.
A transitional government, appointed after the coup leader agreed to a deal with West African nations to hand over power, is supposed to be working toward the restoration of democracy.
Mali was shocked last month, however, when a mob stormed the presidential palace in the capital, Bamako, and brutally beat the country's caretaker leader.
The country was in the past hailed in the West as a beacon of stability and model of African democracy.