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Hundreds in Mali Protest UN Airstrikes

FILE - United Nations peacekeepers from Senegal peer from behind a gate in Gao, Mali, during a protest against sending them to the northern rebel-held town of Kidal, July 5, 2013.

Hundreds of people protesting United Nations peacekeepers’ airstrikes on Tuareg rebels in Mali occupied the airport in the northern town of Kidal on Wednesday, forcing U.N. troops to abandon positions there.

The protest in the rebel stronghold, mainly by women and children, comes a day after Dutch U.N. attack helicopters hit rebel forces in northern Mali during clashes over a separate town. It was the first such engagement by peacekeepers.

The protesers "were violent. They threw stones, they burned some assets," U.N. spokeswoman Radhia Achouri told Reuters. "We ordered our units guarding the airport to go inside the camp."

She estimated 200 to 300 people were involved in the protest.

A Kidal resident at the airport said U.N. troops had shot in the air to try to disperse the crowds. But protests had continued, so the U.N. troops headed to their base in the town.

Achouri said she was not aware of reports of any shots being fired.

The resident said tents and generators had been set on fire and U.N. flags had been replaced by those of Azawad, the rebels’ name for the northern desert homeland they wanted to carve out of Mali when they rebelled in 2012.

Mission questioned

In 2013, the U.N. Security Council established the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to stabilize the country. U.N. peacekeepers are supposed to help Malian forces secure the vast northern desert zone, which separatist rebels and al-Qaida-linked militants had occupied before a French intervention scattered them.

The resident, who asked not to be named, said protesters "are calling on MINUSMA to leave. They don't want them here anymore."

Insecurity has spiked in the north as peace negotiations have stalled and Islamists, hunted by French forces, have mounted a resurgence.