Bamako: Separatist militants shot dead a Malian soldier as violent anti-government protests erupted ahead of Prime Minister Moussa Mara’s visit to the rebel-controlled northern city of Kidal on Saturday.

The trip, part of Mara’s first tour of the west African nation’s restive northern desert since his appointment in April, was delayed as shots rang out, felling the trooper near the regional governor’s office.

The premier was due to meet Malian troops but his arrival was delayed by several hours as he was diverted to Gao after news emerged of the shooting and also of violent protests at the regional airport.

He was finally able to touch down by helicopter at a UN barracks, where a member of his entourage told AFP by telephone that gunfire was still audible.

“Mr Mara left the UN military camp in Kidal to get to the Malian army camp. While there, he paid his respects to the body of a Malian soldier who died as a result of wounds sustained in clashes with Tawareq rebels in Kidal,” the source told AFP.

A Malian army source confirmed the shootout, saying the soldier died of bullet wounds, and a source in the governor’s office described it as “an act of sabotage of the prime minister’s visit”.

Kidal, 1,500 kilometres northeast of the capital Bamako, was the scene of anti-government protests by several hundred youths and women on Friday who demonstrated at the regional airport against the visit.

Kidal part of Mali

Mara’s predecessor Oumar Tatam Ly was forced to cancel a trip in November to Kidal — the stronghold of Mali’s Tawareq separatist movement — after protesters occupied a runway at the airport.

“MINUSMA strongly condemns these acts of violence which have continued since yesterday morning in the city of Kidal,” the UN force said in a statement.

“Such developments are counterproductive and contrary to the will of the people of Mali, who aspire to peace and lasting stability.”

The force said 19 of its police and seven protesters had been wounded in clashes since the demonstrations began, though none seriously.

“I came to bring the clear message of the president of the republic that Kidal is part of Mali. We are for peace with all our brothers but there will not be two Malis,” Mara said in a speech before reporters in Kidal.

“I also pay my respects to the memory of the Malian soldier who lost his life here this morning because he was defending the Malian flag in Kidal.”

Mara’s tour of the north started on Friday in the desert caravan town of Timbuktu, and he was due to move from Kidal to Gao on Sunday and Monday, although it was not immediately clear whether the itinerary would now change.

Mohammad Maiga, an official in the governor’s office, said the premier would sleep in Kidal overnight as the weather was too poor for the helicopter to take off.

“It’s still tense in Kidal. We’re expecting more gunfire,” he added.

Islamist extremists

After a nine-month occupation, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) evacuated the governor’s offices and state TV and radio station in Kidal in November last year.

The move was in line with the terms of a June peace deal, which paved the way for presidential elections across the country last year.

But the process deeply divided the MNLA, whose ultimate goal is the independence of Azawad, the minority Tawareq name for their homeland in northern Mali.

Up until the agreement, the MNLA had refused to allow any government soldiers or civil servants into the desert town.

The election — won by Ebrahim Boubacar Keita — was seen as a key step to restoring stability in Mali.

The country descended into crisis in January 2012, when the MNLA launched the latest in a string of Tawareq insurgencies in the north.

A subsequent coup in Bamako led to chaos, and armed Islamist radicals linked to Al Qaida overpowered the Tawareq to seize control of Mali’s northern half.

A French-led military operation launched in January 2013 ousted the extremists, but sporadic attacks have continued, and the Tawareq demand for autonomy has not been resolved.