By Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo
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, but a U.N. spokesman said only warning shots were fired.
Violence erupted as peacekeepers were meeting local leaders angry over a plan to create a buffer zone in the north that would force pro-Bamako militia in the area to disarm while Tuareg separatist rebels to the north 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 stabilize 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.
While the Gao protests on Tuesday were over a proposed buffer zone seen as favoring the Tuareg rebels, U.N. troops were targeted by demonstrators last week angry at U.N. peacekeepers carrying out air strikes on the rebels.
(Writing and additional reporting by David Lewis; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Ralph Boulton)