By Serge Daniel (AFP) – Jun 26, 2012
BAMAKO — Malian rebels opened fire on protesters Tuesday, shooting at least one dead, during a rally against the killing of a local official by insurgents whose uprising has split the country in two.
Demonstrators in the northern town of Gao protested against the killing of Idrissa Oumarou, a local government official who died there Monday.
Tensions have soared in the town over the nearly three-month-old occupation by Tuareg and Islamist rebels.
"We are marching to protest the death of our municipal councillor," said teacher Oumar Diankante, who accused the Tuareg rebels' National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) of opening fire on protesters.
"I have seen one person dead already, others say there are several dead," he added.
Abdou Sidibe, a lawmaker in Gao, told AFP that "there were several deaths", but did not give a number.
Gao is one of several main towns in Mali's vast north seized by two rebel groups with very different ideologies and objectives, in the wake of a March 22 military coup in Bamako.
Eleven people had been admitted to hospital with gunshot wounds following the demonstration, a hospital source said.
However, it was unclear whether the MNLA or Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) had opened fire.
Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, a member of an MNLA delegation in Ouagadougou meeting with mediators over the Malian crisis, denied members of his movement were involved.
He claimed the Islamist-aligned Al-Qaeda offshoot, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), was trying to "push the population to rise up against the MNLA".
"The MNLA firmly condemns those who shot at the crowd protesting its discontent in Gao," he said.
The occupation effectively partitions the bow-tie shaped nation, and despite an interim government taking over from the junta in the south, the state has been unable to focus its resources on winning back the north.
In Bamako hundreds took to the streets on Tuesday afternoon against the violence in Gao as well as "government's inability" to take back the lost territory, an AFP journalist witnessed.
The northern takeover was spearheaded by the Tuareg who want independence for their homeland which they call Azawad, citing the increasing marginalisation of the desert nomads.
But the previously unknown group Ansar Dine quickly took control in key towns such as the fabled Timbuktu. They want an Islamic state based on strict sharia law which they have already begun implementing.
Last week a young couple was publicly whipped for having a child out of wedlock, and smokers have also been whipped and women forced to wear veils.
The Islamist rebels are backed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the splinter group MUJAO -- both involved in kidnapping foreigners.
The current occupation has raised concerns in the west that Mali could become a hive of terrorist activity and safe haven for Al-Qaeda.
Gao was the first town in the zone to protest against the occupation when armed men in May stopped youths from playing football and watching television, provoking violent anti-Islamist protests.
"We don't want the MNLA, or MUJAO here in Gao. The Malian army must come quickly to help us chase these armed criminals," said Moustapha Maiga, a local government official from a nearby town.
Ansar Dine and Tuareg leaders have been holding talks in the Burkina Faso capital with mediator President Blaise Compaore.
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