BAMAKO (Reuters) - Malian youths clashed with ruling Islamists in the city of Gao in a protest against the planned punishment by amputation of a suspected robber and the beating of a journalist covering the demonstration, local residents said.
The unrest followed the fatal stoning by Islamists of a couple accused of adultery and pointed to growing resistance to the imposition of sharia (Islamic law) by Islamist gunmen, some of whom are linked to al Qaeda, in control of Mali's north.
Demonstrations by hundreds of young people went on well past nightfall in Gao on Sunday, ending when Islamists fired into the air to scatter the crowds, residents told Reuters on Monday.
"The protests lasted all yesterday and continued very late into the night," said Kader Toure, a local journalist.
"The (Islamists) wanted to apply sharia to a young thief - they wanted to chop his arm off. But the population rejected this and the youths came out to Independence Square to oppose it. The Islamists delayed the punishment and fired in the air to disperse them," Toure said.
A hospital source said six people were injured in the disturbances, including Malick Aliou Maiga, another local journalist who was beaten up by Islamist gunmen after speaking out on air about the planned amputation.
Oumar Baba Maiga, a Gao resident, said hundreds of youths were on the streets after nightfall. "It was a human tide. Everyone went out onto the streets as the (attack on Maiga) took place live on air," he said.
Gao, which had been the Malian army's base for operations fighting rebels earlier this year, is now mainly controlled by Islamist group MUJWA, which alongside Ansar Dine and AQIM, al Qaeda's North African wing, have hijacked a rebellion initially started by secular, independence-seeking Taureg rebels.
The three groups now jointly occupy the northern two-thirds of the West African country.
As with last week's stoning, Mali's interim government issued a statement condemning the planned amputation and the beating of the journalist.
But both the Malian government and regional states, fretting that Mali's north has become a safe haven for extremists and criminal groups, remain powerless to take on the Islamists.
Oumar Ould Hamaha, a fighter who said he was speaking as a MUJWA spokesman, confirmed the incident.
"We don't care about secularism, democracy, the international community or others. People must accept that we will impose sharia whether they like it or not," he said. "It is not tramps like journalists who are going to stop us."
(Reporting by Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Joe Bavier)