BAMAKO More than 100 women marched against the imposition of strict Islamic law in the northern Malian town of Timbuktu on Saturday, but were dispersed by gunmen linked to al Qaeda firing shots in the air, witnesses said.
Islamists linked to al Qaeda's North African wing, AQIM, have been in control of the fabled desert town since April and have steadily imposed their interpretation of sharia law, banning music and forcing women to cover themselves with veils.
Women gathered in the main square late morning and were due to march around the town but they were stopped by gunfire.
"Life has become more and more difficult with these people," Cisse Toure, one of the protesters, told Reuters by telephone.
"We are tired. They impose veils on us and now they are hunting us like bandits for not wearing them," she added.
Estimates for the number of women who took part ranged from 100-300.
Sanda Ould Bounama, a spokesman for the Islamists confirmed a protest had taken place but was not able to give any further details.
Islamist group Ansar Dine is officially in charge of the town but the group has maintained close links with AQIM since a mix of secular and Islamist gunmen routed Malian government forces, seizing the north of the country six months ago.
The Islamists have since defeated the secular Tuareg rebels and are in full control of the desert zone.
They have been imposing strict Islamic law, including the amputation of limbs of suspected criminals, sparking localized protests by a population that has long practiced a more tolerant brand of Islam.
(Reporting by Admana Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Jon Hemming)