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Protest mars opening of Mali conference

01 November 2013, 20:41

Bamako - More than one thousand Malians burnt tyres and set fire to the mayor's residence in the northern city of Gao, to protest against the make-up of a delegation representing them at a nationwide conference.

The demonstration broke out as representatives gathered at the opening ceremony of the Conference on Northern Mali in Bamako, for three days of talks on promoting peace and equality among the marginalised populations of the country's vast desert north.

"There are more than a thousand people now in the streets of Gao. They are protesting against the composition of the local delegation to represent the region in the Bamako conference," said Oumar Dicko, a member of youth movement in the town.

Witnesses told AFP by telephone the protesters had burned tyres across the city, paralysing traffic, set fire to a section of the mayor's residence and threw projectiles at a local government building.

"We were a little overwhelmed. We were forced to use tear gas," a Gao police officer told AFP.

It was not immediately clear why the protesters were objecting over the delegation but the Malian government has agreed to allow Gao to send new representatives.

Hundreds of delegates from across Mali are expected to attend the conference, part of a wider plan to broker peace with the restive north, after it was occupied by Tuareg separatists following a military coup last year.

Accelerating developments

Launching the event, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said government would be devolving "more power" to the regions, to "accelerate their development".

"Armed groups and movements have a strong desire for dialogue. We are also for dialogue. Apart from autonomy and independence, everything is negotiable within the republic," he said.

Mali's northern desert region makes up two-thirds of the territory but poverty is widespread among its Tuareg, Arab, Songhai and Fulani populations and basic infrastructure such as clean water, electricity, schools, hospitals and roads is sparse.

The people of the Sahara desert feel abandoned by the political elites in Bamako and an entrenched sense of disenfranchisement has stoked various political or religiously-motivated rebellions in recent decades.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad launched the most recent insurgency to demand independence for northern Mali on behalf of the traditionally nomadic Tuareg last year, following rebellions in 1960, 1990 and 2000.

The uprising precipitated the fall of the region to militants linked to al-Qaeda, but an intervention by French and African troops in January chased the rebels from the region's main cities.



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