Bamako: Three people were killed in northern Mali on Tuesday after a second day of demonstrations against the United Nations military mission in the restive west African nation, government and hospital sources said.
Witnesses described how a huge crowd of angry youths threw stones and attempted to storm the MINUSMA headquarters in Gao in protest at the UN taking control of a troubled area north of the city.
"Here in the morgue in Gao we have at least three dead protesters, some killed by gunshot wounds... There are also several serious injuries," a hospital official told a news agency.
An official in the ministry for security and civil protection confirmed the deaths, adding that the situation remained "very tense".
"Our officers were besieged by protesters this morning, but I can tell you that no one from MINUSMA fired on the demonstrators. Absolutely no order was given to use weapons," Arnaud Akodjenou, deputy representative of the MINUSMA force told a news agency.
"We are in very close contact with the Malian authorities," he added.
An independent source contacted by a news agency described how youths had climbed onto MINUSMA vehicles while others threw petrol bombs at MINUSMA soldiers.
"It was on the verge of a riot. It`s very tense, I heard gunshots," the source said.The crowd was protesting against an agreement concluded at the weekend to create a "temporary security zone" in the Tabankort district of the Gao region.
The area is controlled by pro-government militias who have clashed over recent weeks with armed rebels, leading to the deaths of both fighters and civilians.
The creation of the zone "will force loyalist armed groups to disarm or abandon their posts," a local government source told a news agency.
Loyalist armed movements "strongly encouraged" the demonstration, the source said, referring to the Imghad and Allies Tuareg Self-Defence Group, as well as a pro-government wing of the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) and various vigilante groups.
The agreement between MINUSMA and three rebel groups -- the High Council for the Unity of Azawad, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and an anti-government wing of the MAA -- places the zone under exclusive control of UN troops and guarantees "the free movement of people and goods".
The bloodshed comes after MINUSMA helicopters destroyed a rebel vehicle near Tabankort, north of Gao, in "self-defence" on January 20 following what it described as "direct fire with heavy weapons" on its peacekeepers.
Rebel groups said the action violated UN neutrality, adding that seven militants had been killed and 20 wounded.
The strikes sparked demonstrations hostile to MINUSMA in the northeastern rebel stronghold of Kidal.
Algeria and the UN, who are leading mediation talks between the government and rebels, said the violence in Tabankort threatened to jeopardise the peace process.