By Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Protesters threw stones at officials from Mali's newly elected government during a weekend visit to the main northern rebel stronghold, but the reconciliation minister said on Monday that efforts to heal the country's deep social rifts were on track.
The government said last week it would hold discussions with all of the groups living in the turbulent north of the country before opening peace talks with Tuareg rebels, in a plan designed to end repeated rebellions in the desert region.
Tuareg separatist rebels who took up arms last year signed a ceasefire to allow elections to take place in July and August, but they have not yet disarmed.
Their rebellion was hijacked by better armed al Qaeda-linked Islamists, whose occupation of Mali's north led to French military intervention in January.
Cheick Oumar Diarrah, minister for national reconciliation and development of the North, and two other government ministers traveled to the town of Kidal on Sunday to meet with local officials ahead of the planned dialogue.
Pro-rebel demonstrators, angered that the government was visiting the town before launching peace talks, initially tried to occupy the airport runway to block their arrival, but were dispersed by African peacekeepers, witnesses said.
They then pelted the ministers' convoy with stones as it traveled through the town, breaking the windows of some cars.
Diarrah played down the protests in an interview on state radio, saying he was pleased with how the meeting had gone.
"This very, very minor incident will not divert us from our will to unite all the strands of the Malian nation and reconcile with one another in order to pull Mali out of the current crisis," he said.
The Tuareg-led MNLA rebellion seeking independence for the north triggered a coup and subsequent Islamist takeover.
Fearing the zone had become a launchpad for hardline Islamist attacks, Paris dispatched thousands of troops who scattered Islamist rebels.
A runoff ballot last month elected Ibrahim Boubacar Keita as Mali's new president, restoring civilian rule.
According to the interim deal that allowed elections to go ahead, the rebels are to be confined to barracks and Keita has 60 days from naming his government last weekend to open negotiations.
However, Diarrah said on Friday that dialogue between all communities was needed to draw up a new "social contract" before those talks could begin. He gave no timetable for the dialogue.
Clashes between the army and separatist MNLA rebels near Mali's western border with Mauritania last week highlighted the volatility on the ground despite a 12,600-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission that is being deployed.
Both the rebels and army blamed each other for the incident.
(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra; Writing by David Lewis and Joe Bavier; Editing by Mike Collett-White)