Bamako - Malian soldiers opened fire on demonstrators in the troubled northern city of Kidal on Thursday, residents said, injuring five people in an altercation that highlighted tensions over the country's new government.
The demonstrators had gathered at Kidal airfield to protest the arrival of Prime Minister Oumar Tatam Ly on an official visit one day after the government announced provisional results from the first round of legislative elections Sunday.
After refusing requests from United Nations peacekeepers and the Malian military to leave, demonstrators began throwing rocks at Malian soldiers, who responded with live ammunition, witnesses said.
"It was when they began throwing stones at the military that the military retaliated and shot at the crowd. Four women and a man were wounded," said Kidal resident Moussa Maiga.
However, Mamary Camara, zone commander for the Malian army in Kidal, disputed the witnesses' account, saying stone-throwing protesters had used the women as shields to block them from the Malian soldiers, and that Malian soldiers only fired into the air.
"We began to shoot in the air to clear the protesters and then we returned to camp," Camara said. "The women who were injured were certainly injured by the protesters, not by us."
At Kidal hospital, two women were in critical condition, and a team from the French-led mission known as Serval came to evacuate the seriously injured by air, said Mohamed Ag Abdoulhamid, a local journalist who went to the hospital.
Hubert de Quievrecourt, a communications adviser with the French-led mission in Mali, confirmed that injuries were reported after shots were fired but could not provide details.
"We will assist in helping the wounded, but I cannot comment on what happened," he said.
Kidal has been one of the most insecure parts of Mali's northern region, which was taken over by rebels including Islamic extremists aligned with al-Qaida following a March 2012 military coup. France launched a military intervention in January to drive out the rebels.
The city was the birthplace of last year's uprising by Tuareg separatists, who maintained a strong presence even after France intervened, preventing members of the Bamako-based government from returning until weeks before the first round of a presidential vote earlier this year that was ultimately won by Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
On Nov. 2, two journalists from Radio France Internationale were killed while reporting in Kidal.
Sunday's legislative vote was seen as the last step to restoring constitutional rule in Mali. But the turnout nationwide was just 38 percent, lower than the presidential contest, according to provisional results announced Wednesday night by the Ministry for Territorial Administration.
The vast majority of the country's 147 parliamentary seats will be decided in a runoff next month.
The race in Kidal was one of the few to have produced an outright winner: Ahmoudane Ag Ikmass, a supporter of Mali's government based in the southern capital of Bamako.
Another first-round winner was Soumaila Cisse, who finished second to Keita in the presidential contest.
The provisional results need to be validated by the Constitutional Court on Friday.