BAMAKO, July 13 (Reuters) - Islamist gunmen in Mali shot in the air to disperse protesters trying to block them from attending Friday prayers, witnesses said, the latest clash between locals and rebel groups controlling the country’s north.
The protest in the town of Goundam, 90 km (56 miles) southwest of Timbuktu, erupted after self-appointed morality police beat a woman for not wearing a headscarf, injuring her baby, the witnesses said.
Most people living in northern Mali have long practised Islam, but frustrations with the strict form of sharia, Islamic law, being imposed by Islamists have sparked several protests.
“We will no longer pray in the same mosque as these Islamist bandits. They can go and pray elsewhere,” town resident Oumar Moussa said. He added that youths had encircled the mosque to block access.
Moussa said fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine had set up four checkpoints and were firing in the air to try and disperse protesters who had gathered in the streets.
Hamadoun Sall, mayor of the town, confirmed the shooting and said that dozens of young people were taking part in the demonstrations.
There were no immediate reports of casualties and it was not immediately possible to contact Ansar Dine.
In the last two weeks, Islamists have destroyed many ancient Sufi tombs in Timbuktu, classified by UNESCO as a world heritage site, causing outrage at home and abroad.
Another witness, Sorry Ibrahim Maiga, said youths had gone to meet the Islamists in their base but the talks degenerated into protests sparked by the woman’s beating.
A mix of local and foreign Islamist fighters are in control of northern Mali after they hijacked a rebellion initially launched in January by secular Tuareg separatists.
Western and African governments are struggling to muster a response to the crisis as politicians in the capital Bamako continue to squabble over how the country should be governed after a March coup removed the country’s president. (Reporting by Adama Diarra; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Joe Bavier and Alessandra Rizzo)