Malian soldiers opened fire Tuesday on anti-government demonstrators in Gao, killing three and wounding at least 31, two doctors at a hospital that received the bodies told Reuters.
The protesters were angry about the introduction of a new interim authority set to take charge of the region Friday, which they said would give power to armed groups and would not benefit local people.
The Malian government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A year ago, the government signed a peace deal with Tuareg-led rebels aimed at ending a long conflict that has destabilized the desert country and made it a base for violent jihad. There are signs the pact is unraveling.
The government and the rebel alliance — the Coordination of Azawad Movements — accuse each other of stalling on implementation, and the rebels complain that the U.N.-backed deal falls short of their demands.
Thousands of protesters gathered in the streets of Gao, marching to the central police station and surrounding it Tuesday. Many young people had knives, a Reuters witness said.
Protesters set fire to tires, filling the air with acrid smoke, and pelted the police with stones. Security forces attempted to disperse the crowd with tear gas, and then the military opened fire.
"Look, I was shot in my arm and foot," said a man running away from the crowd, nursing bleeding wounds.
Shooting had stopped and much of the crowd had been dispersed by late morning local time, but a heavy military presence continued to patrol the streets.
The U.N. Security Council decided last week to add 2,500 peacekeepers to the mission in Mali in order to "move to a more proactive and robust posture" in the fight against militancy, the resolution said.
French forces intervened in 2013 to drive back Islamist fighters who had hijacked the Tuareg uprising to seize Mali's desert north in 2012. The militants have since reorganized and launched a wave of attacks.