Bamako - More than one thousand Malians burnt tyres and
set fire to the mayor's residence in the northern city of Gao, to protest
against the make-up of a delegation representing them at a nationwide
The demonstration broke out as representatives gathered
at the opening ceremony of the Conference on Northern Mali in Bamako, for three
days of talks on promoting peace and equality among the marginalised
populations of the country's vast desert north.
"There are more than a thousand people now in the
streets of Gao. They are protesting against the composition of the local
delegation to represent the region in the Bamako conference," said Oumar
Dicko, a member of youth movement in the town.
Witnesses told AFP by telephone the protesters had burned
tyres across the city, paralysing traffic, set fire to a section of the mayor's
residence and threw projectiles at a local government building.
"We were a little overwhelmed. We were forced to use
tear gas," a Gao police officer told AFP.
It was not immediately clear why the protesters were
objecting over the delegation but the Malian government has agreed to allow Gao
to send new representatives.
Hundreds of delegates from across Mali are expected to
attend the conference, part of a wider plan to broker peace with the restive
north, after it was occupied by Tuareg separatists following a military coup
Launching the event, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita
said government would be devolving "more power" to the regions, to
"accelerate their development".
"Armed groups and movements have a strong desire for
dialogue. We are also for dialogue. Apart from autonomy and independence,
everything is negotiable within the republic," he said.
Mali's northern desert region makes up two-thirds of the
territory but poverty is widespread among its Tuareg, Arab, Songhai and Fulani
populations and basic infrastructure such as clean water, electricity, schools,
hospitals and roads is sparse.
The people of the Sahara desert feel abandoned by the
political elites in Bamako and an entrenched sense of disenfranchisement has
stoked various political or religiously-motivated rebellions in recent decades.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad launched
the most recent insurgency to demand independence for northern Mali on behalf
of the traditionally nomadic Tuareg last year, following rebellions in 1960,
1990 and 2000.
The uprising precipitated the fall of the region to
militants linked to al-Qaeda, but an intervention by French and African troops
in January chased the rebels from the region's main cities.