BAMAKO (Reuters) - United Nations peacekeepers in the northern Malian town of Gao killed at least three people on Tuesday when they used live rounds to disperse protesters there, witnesses said.
A U.N. spokesman said only warning shots were fired.
The violence erupted as peacekeepers were meeting local leaders angry over a plan to create a buffer zone in the north that would force pro-government militia in the area to disarm while Tuareg separatist rebels would be less affected.
A witness at the protest said U.N. troops started shooting after initially using tear gas to try to disperse crowds. He said he saw a dead protester who had been shot in the face.
A second witness said he saw four dead and four others who had been injured taken into Gao hospital. Medical officials there were not immediately available for comment.
“U.N. forces panicked and they opened fire on the protesters,” a Malian military source in Gao told Reuters.
“There are already three dead and many injured.”
U.N. peacekeepers have deployed across northern Mali to try to stabilise the vast region, which was occupied by separatist Tuareg rebels and al Qaeda-linked Islamists in 2012 before a French intervention in 2013.
The weak Bamako government has struggled to restore its authority on its northern zones and peacekeepers are caught between various pro-government and rebel factions still operating there.
U.N. spokesman Olivier Salgado said that according to information available to the mission headquarters in Bamako, U.N. troops fired only warning shots after protesters threw rocks and petrol bombs at the base.
“We are trying to understand why the Malian security detail that was with the protest withdrew,” he said, adding two U.N. police officers were injured.
David Gressly, deputy head of the U.N. mission in Mali, said no agreement had been reached to create a northern buffer zone and that a leaked text was only a working document. U.N. officials said the text of the document had been manipulated by pro-separatist elements.
“We regret what happened today in Gao,” Gressly told a news conference. “We will open an enquiry to determine what happened.”
The U.N. mission has faced mounting hostility in northern Mali after its helicopters carried out air strikes last week against Tuareg separatist rebels they said were threatening the civilian population in the town of Tabankort.
The incident, which separatists called a violation of a ceasefire deal, provoked demonstrations last week in northern Mali. Peace talks between separatists and the government are due to restart in Algeria next month.
Corinne Dufka, associate director for Human Rights Watch in West Africa, called for both the United Nations and the Malian government to each conduct a thorough, prompt, and impartial investigation into Tuesday’s shooting.
“Lethal force should only be used as a last resort when lives are at risk,” she said.
Additional reporting by David Lewis in Dakar and Joe Penney in Bamako; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Angus MacSwan