BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — U.N. peacekeepers said they fired tear gas and warning shots on Tuesday to disperse a protest that had degenerated into violence outside one of their bases in northern Mali. Three people were killed and several wounded, including some by gunfire, the force said.
But two witnesses — Attouyoube Maiga, a passerby, and Aboubacrine Abouhayata, a local radio journalist — told The Associated Press they saw U.N. troops fire live rounds into the crowd that had gathered in the city of Gao. David Gressly, the U.N. secretary-general's deputy special representative in the force, told reporters Tuesday evening that only warnings shots were fired. He said an investigation has been opened.
U.N. troops are in Mali to restore stability in the north, which was first overrun by Tuareg separatists and then al Qaida-linked Islamist extremists following a coup in 2012. A French-led intervention in 2013 scattered the extremists. But recent months have seen repeated attacks by the Islamists, and tensions are also rising with the Tuaregs.
The peacekeeping force has come under increasing pressure in recent days after a clash last week with Tuareg separatists near Gao.
A group of protesters marched on the peacekeepers' base Tuesday and began throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, Olivier Salgado, the spokesman for the U.N. mission in Mali known as MINUSMA, said. When they wounded two U.N. police officers, U.N. forces responded to disperse the crowd, Salgado said.
In all, three people were killed, Gressly said, citing a provisional toll from the Red Cross. He did not say how they died, but said four people were wounded by gunfire; another six members of the crowd were hurt in the melee and three U.N. troops were wounded.
"We are saddened by this escalation of violence, which should not have taken place," Gressly said at a news conference in Bamako, the capital.
The demonstrators were protesting a temporary security zone that they thought troops had imposed in response to last week's clash. But Gressly said that the zone was simply a proposal and is still under discussion.