Violent protest in Mali's Gao over talks to heal north
GAO, Mali (Reuters) - Thousands of residents in Mali's northern city of Gao fought street battles with the police on Friday and torched the mayor's house during a protest over talks aimed at healing divisions in the north.
Police fired tear gas at protesters who threw rocks and torched cars, accusing officials of making last-minute changes to the list of delegates for the talks in the capital Bamako, according to residents.
Gao was a stronghold of Islamist militants who took over the north of the country in 2012 before France sent troops to Mali in January to drive them out.
The violence highlights the challenges newly elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita faces in fixing the broken nation, once considered a model democracy in West Africa.
"Youths started burning tires and barricading streets. The mayor's house was torched and three cars were burnt in front of his office," Gao resident Boubacar Maiga said.
"We have things to say and there are officials who do not want to hear us in Bamako," said Aliou Toure, another resident, who took part in the protest.
Local authorities were not immediately available to comment but Mali's reconciliation minister Cheick Ouamar Diarrah said the change in the list was a misunderstanding, and delegates chosen by the people would join the conference.
Gao suffered the brunt of the nine-month Islamist occupation as militants applied strict Islamic sharia law, carrying out public floggings, stonings and amputations.
Residents have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against hardship and insecurity as the town has come under rocket attacks from insurgents hiding in the surrounding desert.
In a separate development on Friday, the Netherlands said it would send combat helicopters and some 380 troops to boost a U.N.-led peacekeeping mission trying to stabilize Mali.
(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra; Writing by Bate Felix and Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)