Timbuktu (Mali) (AFP) - The Malian army exchanged gunfire with Tuareg separatist rebels on Saturday, throwing into doubt the prime minister's visit to the rebel-controlled northeast.
Moussa Mara was expected to arrive in the restive region of Kidal as part of a first visit to the west African nation's vast northern desert since his appointment six weeks ago.
"Gunfire erupted Saturday between the Malian army and Tuareg rebels near the governor's office in Kidal. The prime minister's visit to Kidal is compromised," an official from the MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali, told AFP.
The firefight was confirmed by an official from the regional governor's office, who described it as "an act of sabotage of the prime minister's visit", but there was no immediate word on whether the trip would be cancelled.
The official said no one appeared to have been hurt but added that the situation was "very worrying".
Kidal, 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, was the scene of anti-government protests by several hundred youths and women on Friday who demonstrated against the visit at the regional airport.
Witnesses said the protesters had thrown stones at security forces while a Malian military source told AFP they were eventually dispersed by United Nations peacekeepers.
Mara's predecessor Oumar Tatam Ly was forced to cancel a trip in November to the lawless region -- the stronghold of Mali's Tuareg separatist movement, which calls the vast, sparsely-populated northern desert Azawad -- after protesters occupied a runway at the airport.
Residents in Kidal told AFP at least 100 locals were heading back to the airport on Saturday to prevent Mara's arrival.
The premier's tour of the north started on Friday in the fabled desert caravan town of Timbuktu, and is due to move from Kidal to the neighbouring region of Gao on Sunday and Monday.
Security is being provided by United Nations peacekeepers and the French army, which led an international military intervention in January last year against Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda who had occupied the north.