BAMAKO At least two people were killed in protests in the rebel-held northern Mali city of Gao on Tuesday when youths clashed with armed rebel fighters they accuse of killing a local councilor, hospital officials said.
The violence comes after weeks of growing tensions between locals and the mix of separatist Tuareg-led rebels and al Qaeda-backed Islamists who seized the northern two-thirds of the West African country in April.
The Islamist group known as Ansar Dine has imposed sharia, Islamic law, on Malians used to a version of Islam that tolerated music, alcohol and social contact between the sexes. People are also struggling with food and energy shortages.
"We have two deaths and at least eight seriously wounded," Ibrahim Maiga, a laboratory technician at the local hospital, told Reuters by telephone. A second hospital official later said 12 people were injured.
Youths were marching in protest at the killing on Monday of Idrissa Oumarou, a local teacher and a councilor for ADEMA, the main party in the national parliament.
"The MNLA militants reacted by opening fire on the crowd," said one Gao resident, Kader Toure, by telephone.
A spokesman for the MNLA - The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the northern territory in which it has declared a largely ignored independence - declined to comment.
Several hundred youths took to the streets in the southern capital Bamako in sympathy with the Gao march.
"WE ARE NOT ALONE"
Confusion reigns in the south where the national army is licking its wounds after the rout by rebels and a transition back to civilian rule hangs in the balance after a March 22 coup d'état.
In the north, MNLA and Ansar Dine have an uneasy power-sharing arrangement, despite the fact that Ansar Dine does not support the MNLA's separatist ambitions and the secular MNLA does not advocate sharia.
A Reuters reporter in Gao last week heard Ansar Dine-controlled public radio exhorting women to don a veil whenever they leave home.
"You don't mess around with Ansar Dine," said one 45-year-old woman reluctantly obeying the order.
Mali's north was already a centre for cross-desert trafficking of drugs, stolen goods and Western hostages before rebels got their hands on weapons spilling over the border from last year's war in Libya.
Better-armed and better-funded than their MNLA counterparts, the men of Ansar Dine carry new-generation mobile phones and smile when asked where they get their money.
"We are not alone in the world," said Abou Darda, an Algerian who says he was with Ansar Dine when the rebels routed the Malian government army in Gao and other strategic towns.
"It (the money) comes from the jihad - people of good will across the world who support our cause."
(Additional reporting by Cheikh Diouara; Writing by Bate Felix and Mark John; Editing by Andrew Heavens)